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Why kids are getting more aggressive on the playground


Here is a new piece from pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom, who has written some popular posts, including “Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today,” as well as “The right — and surprisingly wrong — ways to get kids to sit still in class” and “A therapist goes to middle school and tries to sit still. She can’t. Neither can the kids.” Here is the fifth in her occasional series on movement in classrooms. Hanscom is the founder of TimberNook, a nature-based development program designed to foster creativity and independent play outdoors in New England.

By Angela Hanscom

Tag…a simple game of tag. Seems innocent enough. But is it? Not according to many teachers.

Kids are starting to hit with such force that they often end up whacking their opponent across the back in a monstrous slap. I’ve seen this myself many times. “Ouch!” one kid cries, now on their hands and knees and fighting off tears. “Don’t hit so hard!” they yell up at the child standing over them. Often, you hear the other child whine, “I didn’t mean too…” Many times the act seems unintentional, although painful for the victim nonetheless. Tag is now becoming such an issue that schools are starting to ban this once beloved game.

In the fall of 2013, the problem of banning the childhood game hit a little too close to home. At a local New Hampshire school, tag was no longer a reality for many children. A classic game that was cherished through the ages was dismissed due to safety concerns. Parents and children were confused and some were outraged. Headlines stated everything from, “Banning Tag is Dumb” to “More Schools Banning Tag because of Injuries.” Curious, I started interviewing teachers in Maine and New Hampshire about what they were seeing at recess time.

One teacher said, “Kids are becoming more aggressive. When they play games like tag, they push with great force, often hurting the other child. We had to implement a ‘two-finger’ touch rule, so that kids couldn’t push so hard.” Another teacher that had been around for 30 years, saidshe had seen an increase in aggressive behavior as well. “They can’t seem to keep their hands off each other! Kids are always getting hurt.” A local principal stated that tag had become such a problem that they had to get creative. They gave the children foam noodles to “tag” the other children with and avoid actual contact with the hands.

The problem? Due to less time in active play these days, children are not developing the senses in their joints and muscles (proprioceptive sense) like they used to. In the past, it was more common for children to help with the outdoor chores. They would assist with raking leaves, shoveling the snow, and would even earn money by mowing lawns in their neighborhood. They’d also play for hours outside – moving heavy rocks to build a dam, scaling trees to new heights, and digging moats in the dirt. All of this “heavy work” helped children to develop a strong and healthy proprioceptive system.

[Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today]

Pediatric occupational therapists often prescribe “heavy work” to young children who have trouble with their proprioceptive sense. This usually consists of anything that gives weighted input to the joints and muscles, such as pulling a wagon that is loaded with bricks, carrying grocery bags, and digging in the garden. These are things that children would be naturally getting if they spent a considerable amount of time outside.

Due to the busy schedules of today, children often don’t have hours to explore the outdoors, to help with the outside chores, or even do small jobs that require manual labor. Therefore, many children don’t have the same opportunities to fully develop and fine-tune the senses in the joints and muscles. As a result, more and more children are starting to have trouble regulating how much force to use when pushing and pulling and even interacting with the objects and people around them.

This is why we are seeing children hit with too much force during a game of tag. Their senses are not quite working right – all because they are not engaged in an adequate amount of active play and movement on a regular basis.

What do the adults do?

When we see a problem with a game of tag or any other game for that reason – we take it away. Understandably, we don’t want children to get hurt. However, before we go and start banning everything, we should really try to understand why this is happening.

If children are getting more aggressive on a larger scale – there has got to be a good reason for it. It isn’t necessarily because children have become incompetent of playing games “safely” or even that they are becoming mean-spirited. There is actually a biological reason for it. Our job as the adults is to seek that knowledge and to fix the underlying problem.

Taking away tag is like putting a Band-aid over a deeper issue. Let’s fix the deeper issue.

You may also be interested in:

Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today

The right — and surprisingly wrong — ways to get kids to sit still in class

A therapist goes to middle school and tries to sit still. She can’t. Neither can the kids.

How schools ruined recess — and four things needed to fix it