Teaching Today’s Kids Yesterday’s Games

lenore skenazyBY LENORE SKENAZY | Since lately there’s almost no aspect of childhood that isn’t bewailed, it should come as no surprise that the existence of “recess consultants” is evidence to many that the apocalypse is at hand.

But it isn’t.

Despite articles, editorials, and tweets like, “Oh good dear sweet God in heaven, save us from ourselves,” the consultants do not strike me as helicoptering killjoys. And I say that as the founder of Free-Range Kids, an entire movement devoted to more freedom and less adult supervision of kids.

How does that square with a program that places young adults outside at recesses across the country — including 30 schools in New York State — teaching kids how to play some age-old games?

It is because I think of Playworks, an organization which trains and provides these consultants, as something akin to Lady Bird Johnson.


Lady Bird Johnson was President Lyndon Johnson’s wife, and she had a pet cause: Wildflowers. Thanks to development and pollution, these were dying out. So she set about deliberately planting some of the wildflowers that were disappearing. In other words, she used completely artificial means to bring back the natural landscape.

That’s what the Playworks coaches are doing. They are artificially reviving a natural part of childhood that has been dying out: Playing.

I have no idea who taught me kickball as a kid. But there was a game of it in front of my suburban house every night, so I just kind of absorbed it. Who taught me four square? Hopscotch? Jacks? Chinese jump rope? Who taught me “Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack — All dressed in black, black, black?”

Or even the double-Dutch rhyme, “Cinderella, dressed in yella — Went downtown to meet her fella — On the way her girdle busted — How many people were disgusted?”

I may be middle-aged, but even when I was a kid, girdles were on their way out. Way out. Which means that the rhymes I was learning came from long ago, handed down from older sister to younger, to neighbor, to kid down the block.

Until there were no kids playing on the block anymore.

One recent study found that the number of kids ages 9–13 playing outside, unsupervised, for even one hour a week is six percent. The number of kids walking to school is about 11 percent. So all those games, rules, and songs we learned by osmosis are not being learned by an entire generation of kids.

We may like to think of play as innate, but what’s innate is the desire to play. It isn’t innate to come up with the rules of four square, or a rhyme about a wardrobe malfunction. Those are things handed down from generation to generation.

When they’re not, it is like a lost language. If a parent speaks Spanish, but not to her kids, the kids don’t automatically learn it. Likewise, just because we all knew how to organize a game of “Mother May I?” doesn’t mean today’s kids will, if they haven’t been taught by the older kids, or even just watched them play it.

Enter the Playworks coaches. They are trying to bring back childhood games because those games were not coming back on their own.

I was invited to a Playworks conference at Columbia few years back, because I, too, had ridiculed them. Then the organization’s founder, Jill Vialet, told her story. She’d come to an Oakland, California school to talk about starting an art program. But when the principal emerged from her office trailed by a trio of nine-year-old boys who looked like they’d just been chewed out, she snapped at Jill, “You know what I really need? I need someone to fix recess. 

Too many of the kids weren’t playing. With no experience in organizing their own games, or solving the inevitable conflicts, the kids resorted to an even more basic behavior: They walloped each other. And got in trouble. And started to think of themselves as bad kids.

So Jill decided to see if she could bring back some of her childhood — the fun she’d had playing every day after school.

Lady Bird re-seeded the hills with wildflowers. Playworks is trying to re-seed the playgrounds with joy.

Their goal is to let the kids take over, once they learn some games, and some quick techniques for solving conflicts, like “Rock-Paper-Scissors.”

As far as I can tell, Playworks is not about micromanaging recess, or forcing participation, or insisting, “Everybody wins!”

It’s about giving kids back that precious thing we took away from them: time with their friends outside, on their own, learning games as old as girdles.

And probably older.

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker who authored the book, and founded the blog, Free-Range Kids (freerangekids.com).