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The U.S. recess predicament: Extraordinary photos of what we can learn from play in other parts of the world

There's a reason why recess is so often a part of our most vivid memories of childhood.

"The school playground was mainly a space of fun and games," recalled photographer James Mollison, "but it could also be one of brutality and cruelty."

In a journey that began at his own school in Britain and at his wife's in the United States and then took him to 15 other countries on four continents, Mollison documented this often magical, sometimes anxiety-filled time of day for children in a series of stunning and nostalgic images.

Along the way, Mollison, a 42-year-old who grew up in Kenya and now lives in Italy, got extraordinary access to observe the way kids play in farflung parts of the earth. What he discovered, he said, is that there are "very different realities that children experience at school both within individual countries and across the world."

In the United States, recess has become one of the most contentious topics in childhood education in recent years.

A growing body of research has supported increasing physical activity for children during the school day. Robert Murray, a professor at Ohio State University in Columbus, for instance, has argued that "recess represents an essential, planned respite from rigorous cognitive tasks." "It affords a time," he has said, "to rest, play, imagine, think, move, and socialize."

As part of her campaign against childhood obesity, first lady Michelle Obama has been pushing for more physical activity at schools. She has lamented that “we’re currently on track to raising the most inactive generation in our nation’s history.”

In 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a new policy statement arguing the benefits of recess for a child’s cognitive, emotional, physical and social well-being and that schools should be adding on to recess periods rather than shrinking them.

[Standing desks at schools: The solution to the childhood obesity epidemic?]

Yet, more and more, school districts have been moving in the opposite direction -- cutting back on recess time to make room for academic subjects with critics blaming the pressure of standardized testing. Some schools withhold recess as a punishment, and as a general trend, schools tend to decrease the time allotted to physical activity as children age.

Some researchers are blaming the lack of time for physical activity as the cause of the rise in diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in boys. They argue that if children had more time to run around, they would be able to concentrate better in class.

How does recess in the United States compare to recess in other countries?

On average, American elementary school kids get 27 minutes a day. Their Finnish peers get an average of 75 minutes. In Japan, children get 10- to 15 minute breaks each hour in addition to a longer recess period based on the idea that kids' attention spans begin to wane after a certain amount of intense instruction.

Mollison, whose images were published earlier this year in the book "Playground," observed numerous other differences. In 15 of the 17 countries he visited recess was always in the mid-morning and at lunchtime.

One of the exceptions was Bhutan, at a monks school where the children get a break after breakfast.

The other was China. "Many schools don’t have a ‘free play’ recess but rather they have a morning exercise break — where a sound system booms out instruction for stretching exercises, followed by ten minutes of running. Later in the morning there is also an eye exercise break, in which the children move their eyes to music," he told The Washington Post.

Below is a look at what Mollison saw on his travels:

Mollison was especially intrigued by St. Mary of the Assumption Elementary in Brookline, Mass. as his wife Amber attended when she was a child.

"Although across the Atlantic from the school I went to in Oxford, it was very similar to my own experience; children running around playing ‘tag,’ playing hide and seek, with hula-hoops and teasing each other and name calling -- you can see one child in the photo who was put his fingers in his ears while another boy taunts him," he said.

Mollison recalls being very impressed by the schools in Norway: "Children were expected to go out and play no matter what the weather. The playgrounds had trees -- which the children were free to climb as high as they wanted -- and rocks and sticks to build camps. Children were taught to resolve disputes amongst themselves and there was very little monitoring by teachers."

[Can green spaces at schools make children smarter?]

Due to the scarcity and high cost of land in Tokyo, the Shohei Elementary School playground was constructed on the roof, above the sixth-floor classrooms. Only soft balls are allowed, to guard against injuring pedestrians on the streets below. There is a retractable roof that plays music when it closes.

"The children in playgrounds I visited in Japan were impressively well-behaved...," Mollison said. "Once every two days the students clean up the stairs and classrooms. The government provides cleaners for the school, but the principal feels that it is important that children learn to clean up after themselves. They must take off their shoes before entering their classrooms."

The other intriguing tidbit Mollison observed: "Unicycles were provided for the children — though I only saw girls using them."

The condition of the school Mollison visited in the Kroo Bay slum in Freetown, Sierra Leone, was the most shocking among all the ones he saw. The area was populated in 1994 by people fleeing the conflict in the eastern part of the country and several years later when the fighting reached the city, rebels used it as an army base.

There is no sanitation or garbage collection and the school closes from July to September because the Crocodile River rises and floods the classrooms, sweeps away furniture and damages buildings. Mollison said teachers are no longer paid regularly and rely on very small fees from parents to survive. There is no government support.

"During their break, some children played tag and gossiped on the land in front of the school. The children seemed completely oblivious to the trash, but I winced each time they fell, worried they would cut themselves on glass or a metal can," he remembered.

The atmosphere of the playground at the Aida Boys School in the West Bank, Mollison said, "was particularly rough."

Situated in the Aida Refugee camp, the front line between Israelis and Palestinians during the First Intifada (1987–91) fell close to the school, and its walls were thickened to protect its students against bullets.

"In 2004, the Israelis completed construction of its security wall, just outside the entrance to the school, which the headmaster describes as 'a humiliation in front of [the pupils] every day, a kind of restriction on their future,'" Mollison said. "I was told the third and fourth graders watch the towers to see if the soldiers are looking, and, if not, they throw stones at them. Whenever hostilities flare up with the Israelis, the air fills with tear gas and the headmaster sends everyone home."

Attached to the ancient Dechen Phodrang Monastery which can be literally translated as the “Palace of Great Bliss," the monk school had 450 students and 15 teachers. Students wake up at 5 a.m., and start the day with one hour of praying before their first classes at 6:30 a.m. At 8 a.m. students have breakfast and a short break before resuming classes until noon.

"I was told that the only official break for the students was after their breakfast around 8:20 a.m. — so it was the earliest break I photographed for the project. It was good to see the boy’s playing soccer and joking in the playground, which was situated on a dramatic ridge overlooking Thimphu, the capital of the kingdom of Bhutan," Mollison said.

Mollison said the living conditions at the monastery are rudimentary with the children sleeping on mats on the floors of the drafty study rooms.

"Respiratory infections, lice and scabies are common, and the monastery struggles to provide basic sanitation facilities and adequate food for the boys," he said. "Many boys are sent to the monastery because their families cannot afford to feed them; most come aged 7, and stay eight years before transferring to the Monastic College."

The Valley View School, in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, had 815 pupils and 23 teachers. The surrounding slum is three square miles and home to 600,000 people. Valley View’s classrooms are 13-by-20-foot concrete blocks with corrugated metal roofs.

"When it rains the classes stop because the roofs leak. The classrooms are so cramped that pupils have to climb over desks to get out. The school has a very small kitchen and no library. There are just eight toilets. Pupils have to fetch water every morning," Mollison recalled.

He said the school did not have a proper playground, so at recess "the children just spilled out into the road that entered the Mathare slum."

"It was very noisy as the children charged around, playing and arguing," he recalled.

Attendance has greatly improved since the World Food Programme started providing meals for students in 2005. Children are allowed to carry food home to share with their parents.

Mollison said the nearly 300 pupils at Britain's Hull Trinity House School mostly come from white, working-class backgrounds. Founded in 1787 to educate boys for seafaring careers, the school would provide them with a special dinner as well as two oranges (to help protect against scurvy), before sending them out to the world. Today, Mollison said, students no longer go from school to sea, but the Dinner Day tradition survives.

"On the playground, they were tough and boisterous," he said. "The cluster of boys on the right were giving the blond boy a “wedgy”: grabbing the top of the victim’s under-pants and jerking them upward -- something that we used to do while I was at school -- I was both a victim and perpetrator."

As far as his favorite playground, Mollison says the one "I would want to send my children to would be Norway because of the free play that the children got to experience."

As a photographer? "I loved the Kenyan playgrounds: The vibrantly colored uniforms and energy of the children was mesmerizing."

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