I grew up on a different planet. At least it feels that way after recently starting a teaching job and re-entering the world of adolescent education. Lately I’ve been struck by how strange elements of my childhood would seem to the kids that scamper through school hallways today, which is a particularly scary thought considering I’m only 26 years old. With headphones resting on their shoulders, iPhones vibrating in their pockets and eyes half-shut from staring at a computer screen all night, they couldn’t begin to fathom a world before mainstream technology. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than the oncoming extinction of “recess games.”
I can count the age of the only kids I see running around outside on two hands, and I barely need the second one for most. Utilizing a small space of concrete — which is by definition a yard in New York City — they play basketball, hopscotch and soccer, but not much more. Instead, even more students spend their time hunched over a foosball table, their iPhone or even extra schoolwork. It’s a situation that appears completely contrary to what I remember from my own life.
Growing up here, there was nothing more exciting about school than the 45 minutes of recess jammed into the middle of the day. We didn’t have any huge fields or impressive athletic facilities. Our yard was an oddly shaped piece of concrete, enclosed by thick, black metal bars that made you think “prison,” before “school.” When we finally did get a tree planted during fourth grade, we were pissed off because it was placed in the middle of our space and interfered with whatever game we were playing that day.
It was no more glamorous than the setting that most New York kids are faced with today, but we made the most of it. Nobody was thinking about fresh air or sunlight. All we wanted to do was run around and compete; and we had games to help us do so. Some were invented and most were passed down through watching older students, but few remain in schools today.
The most common game was “Butts Up,” or as some people might remember itl “Wall Ball.” All you needed for pure entertainment was a wall and either a tennis ball or one of those blue handballs. You and a group of friends — sometimes more than 10 people — would throw the ball as hard as possible against the wall, always catching the ricochet with one hand. If you dropped the attempted catch, the fun began. As you ran to touch the wall for safety, the nearest competitor would pick up the ball and throw it against the wall before you got there, or peg you in the back with it. You’d then have a potential welt and a “B,” well on your way to spelling “Butts Up.”
I know it’s a game that might not have been common in places with lush grass, and is certainly one that involved elements of danger, but it was simple, and most importantly, we enjoyed it. Other kids may have played football on a more forgiving surface, but we didn’t mind. It just made us feel a bit tougher than the average kid, which frankly is not a rare feeling for New York children. We knew from watching TV and seeing other parts of the country that our recesses were not the norm, but it never seemed to faze us. We all had activities we could make our own, and that was enough for us.
Recess always seemed to have something for everybody. “Red Rover” was another favorite. Forming two lines, interlocking hands and trying to call out the weakest person on the other team didn’t seem cruel or dangerous. We were all involved in the game, nobody was excluded and nobody thought about the possibility of breaking an arm; we just always loosened our grip a bit when the bigger kids came your way. There were also groups of girls that liked the play “house,” and kids who preferred to simply play tag or jump rope. Because, let’s be honest, being good at Double Dutch actually was something to be proud of.
Despite the fond memories I have from recess, it seems as though the newer generations will look back on it as insignificant. I can’t merely blame this on the kids themselves. Sure, they’re more inclined to pick up an iPad or a Nintendo DS than a tennis ball, but our culture isn’t exactly making the choice hard for them. As a society, we’ve become the over-bearing mother that tries to help her kid so much that she prevents him from leading any kind of normal life. Now we’re making kids spend more time in classrooms and taking away their time to play outside. This might seem logical until you realize that young children can’t sit still for more than five minutes without losing focus. When you limit their ability to move around, you make it easier for them to drift off into other worlds.
We’re also taking away their ability to compete in a natural setting. Instead of doing it in recess games, kids are now competing with each other in the classroom, causing more stress and depression. This leads to the bigger problem of over-protecting. Society has tried so hard to lead kids down a pleasant path that they’ve begun monitoring everything children are doing and taking away any potential hazards, no matter how small. For the last five years, schools have actually been banning “tag.” They claim it easily leads to slapping and hitting, forgetting that it also leads to fun and exercise, two things that can require added creativity when you live in a city as big as New York.
In cities like this, recess is especially important. Kids have to work extra hard to find an outlet for their exercise. Every field needs a permit, every park has “keep off the grass” signs and new buildings are going up all over the place. Kids need to be forced to run around; to stop focusing on their grades for a second and focus on how to throw a spiral. Competing with friends breeds perseverance, self-assurance and the knowledge of how to deal with failure, something our younger students are in desperate need of. They might know what college they want to go to by the time they’re 12, but they have no clue how to relax and live in the moment.
If we want the younger generation to become leaders and innovative thinkers, we need to stop doing the thinking for them. With technology in their hands, they’re beginning to lose all conception of how to interact in normal time. Conversational skills are diminishing and interpersonal relationships suffer. They need to be given opportunities to learn, grow and experience for themselves. If kids never fail, they’ll never have any lessons to draw on later in life.
At the start of fifth grade, I was hesitant to join in the “Butts Up” games. In years past, we’d simply thrown the ball against the wall, so the addition of pegging other players in the back didn’t appeal to me. I wasn’t a fan of pain and didn’t want to become known to the other kids in my class. But the option of sitting the game out was equally as dreadful. So instead, I adjusted. At first I started hanging out closer to the wall and only went after balls that I knew I could catch, but as I gained more confidence I began playing like I had in years past.
Soon, I stopped worrying about my newfound adjustments and began enjoying the game with the rest of my friends. Then the inevitable day came and the ball struck me between the shoulder blades as I reached for the wall. My shoulders scrunched up and I clenched my teeth together as I waited for the pain, expecting an excruciating stab. Instead, I heard rousing cheers from my friends and felt the ball drop against my feet. No world-altering pain; only a new experience. I picked up the ball and continued playing. Life went on and I enjoyed every minute of it.