Recess Has Become Exercise … in Problem-Solving

Deb Beaupre
 (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Deb Beaupre (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Like millions of teachers in America, I have recess duty. Unlike many, I love it.

At recess, I get to see kids being kids, and it is fun and refreshing and does this body good. I like hearing what they talk about (new sneakers they are getting or the time they saw their teacher at the grocery store), watching them dance — especially when their pants are too big and they have to keep pulling them up — and talking with them about the various things that are on their minds after lunch.

First thing they do when they get outside is yell. No actual words, just emoting, a lot like the character from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. They all do it — the quiet ones, the rowdy class clowns, the perfectly perfects. It’s odd. It gives me pause, wondering what about school is squeezing them so tightly that they feel the need to exhale so mightily.

Left to their own devices, some will play in small groups quietly — games they create that can be cumulative or one-time-only affairs. Many play some version of a video game they know, and this can — and often does — lead to problems.

Because I am a mother and my kids are rural — or just weird — I can spot certain kinds of games. Try to see if you can guess the game by the complaints.

Clues: Kids come up and complain that their partners were hitting them too hard. Not the fact of hitting, just the intensity. Also that their playmates were throwing the ball farther than they could retrieve it on hands and knees.

Game? It’s called “Owner.” Someone is being the dog and someone is being the owner, and things got out of hand.

A lot of kids don’t know how to negotiate disagreements on their own. My husband taught me a trick that saves the day: rock-paper-scissors. (Dont know it? Use Google.) He calls it the emergency action plan (EAP) and it is supposed to take adults out of the equation.

Put it into practical action: One child believes she has clearly tagged the other out, but the other girl says she was cleanly missed. Solution? EAP.

She says she still has one more swing to go? EAP.

There is a disturbing trend that has crept up in intensity in the last two years that the EAP can’t address. I do a recess with fourth-graders where everyone is about the same age. The problem is they have also have been together a while, so they occasionally bicker like siblings on a long car ride to you-know-where. Kids get into disagreements on the playground all the time, that isn’t new.

A confrontation goes down like this:

Sam and Molly are playing. Sam does something Molly does not like and Molly says to knock it off. Sam refuses.

Then, Molly says, “I’m telling.” (Telling and tattling are the same thing, but we change the name to make kids feel better about themselves.)

They come to me, both talking at the same time because kids think getting your story in first increases the odds of a favorable outcome. I hear them out and get to the heart of the problem. Sam apologizes and Molly reluctantly accepts, but does not leave. Sam hesitates as well, knowing he can’t leave until she leaves.

I ask Molly what the problem is, though I already know: She wants more of a consequence for Sam.

This is the new thing with kids these days — they want more of a punishment for the kid who is in trouble — eye-for-an-eye, get my due, make him suffer retribution.

But we don’t do that at school. We do empathy: “How do you think Molly felt, Sam?” We do isolation where we take you away from the other kids and make you sit in the principal’s office. We also do time travel: “If you had that to do over, how could you have handled that better?”

But still Sam and Molly are not satisfied. I realized what the kids wanted was clearly unattainable. I’m worried about why they wanted it — violence on TV, trouble at home, lack of civility in general.

After four or five of these interactions in as many minutes, it occurred to me that what the injured party really wanted was for me to make him feel pain that was equal to whatever level of injustice they were feeling themselves. Holy smokes, talk about people who need to learn yoga and Zen breathing!

Lucky for me, recess is only 25 minutes long. So, I started saying something like, “Listen, we can stand here and talk this whole thing through and make a plan for next recess, then meet with the principal, or you two can shake and agree that you will let it drop from here and move on, because I think there are only six more minutes of recess.”

Sam, the perp, looks hopefully at Molly, whose life is in his hands. Molly, the victim, but now with a wicked lot of power, all of a sudden is panicked; she has swings to swing and the slides to go down and a capture the flag game to join. So much to do and so little time to do it!

“OK,” they both agree, and they are gone.

My work is done until the next game of Owner goes awry.

Deb Beaupre is the wife of Newport High athletic director Doug Beaupre. Her column appears periodically in the VALLEY NEWS sports section.