Recess in Elementary School

Parent Q&A

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  • I'd love to hear about some fun and interesting things that your elementary school-aged kids have available to them at their schools during recess/unstructured play time. My 7-year-old son is having a harder time at lunchtime (not athletic and pretend play with his class tends to lean toward "battle" games) and I'd like to work with the school to provide for him + others like him. The school currently has one play structure (this is where the "battle games" tend to take place so we're trying to stay away from this area), basketball hoops, volleyball net and blacktop. They also provide different sport balls for kids to use.  Thank you!

    Our elementary school had a table (hosted by adults) of cooperative board games (Peaceable Kingdom brand) during recess one afternoon, and it was a huge success! The tables were swarming with kids. Our school is also working with the YMCA (at a cost) to engage kids who are not sports or "battle" prone in alternative activities. Lastly, the school library is open for children to hang out / check out books during these times. Good luck!

    My son has similar interests as yours. Some things he likes to do at recess: play with his kendama or yo-yo, dig in the dirt and sand pit (I bought 10-15 plastic garden trowels that were approved by the school for kids to use, and it became quite a popular activity!), "parkour" (he's not very athletic or a risk taker so is mostly hopping on things), catching bugs, playing "Shark out of Water" on the playground equipment, and hide n seek.

    You should look into getting Playworks at your school. This is a nonprofit based in Oakland that provides "recess coaches" to ease the kids out of bullying / battling type of play, teaching them traditional schoolyard games (like foursquare), and -- this is really their strength -- teaching the kids emotional intelligence, how to advocate for themselves or redirect themselves out of a bullying situation, and generally how to avoid the bullcrap many of us dealt with as kids. I really cannot recommend this program highly enough.

  • There is a pattern of two first-grade boys who are bullying my kindergarten son at recess (K and 1st grade have recess together). After it became clear it was a pattern, I talked to the teacher. She then talked to the kids and their teacher and the bullying stopped for about a week. Then one of the kids bullied my son again just before the Thanksgiving break. (I am writing this over the T-Day holiday.)

    My son is an introvert and tends to be alone at recess, which probably makes him an easy target. I've observed recess (before the bullying started) and the yard supervisors literally sit on their butts. Most of the incidents have happened at the lunchtime recess, so the teachers are on their breaks.

    The bullying includes: walking in circles around my son and then knocking him over and/or punching him. He has had a bloody, swollen lip and another time, he bit his tongue hard and it was sore for a couple of days. Most of the time, grown-ups aren't aware of anything that's going on. I am working with my son on going to a grown-up for help!

    I have signed up for a Kidpower class, and in the meantime, I have coached my son to say loudly and strongly, "Stop [bully's name], don't push me!" (or whatever the bully is doing). The last time it happened, my son says that a grown-up (he isn't sure who) took the bully to the office after he strongly said "stop!"

    What happens after a kid goes to the office for this type of thing? Are his parents' notified? 

    I'm starting to wonder if I'm not getting the full story from my son (or if part of it is made up?). There are some details that aren't clear. My son says he doesn't know if it was a man or woman grown-up (odd that he wouldn't know that) who took the bully to the office, for example.

    I have polled all of my friends about this and they tell me that as this age, bullying has only stopped when they have personally talked to the parents. Everyone also says to talk to the principal, which I will be doing on Monday, I suppose.

    Does anyone have any advice on how to handle this? Do I really have to go to the principal? Any other suggestions to empower my son to stand up for himself? I am not against him pushing/hitting back and have told my son that it would be OK to do that. I would consider martial arts, but everything I read says that kids aren't focused enough to do martial arts until they're 7. 

    Thank you, o wise ones!

    Of course you go to the principal! Why would you hesitate? Are you feeling shy or are you worried it'll blow back on your kid? Listen, you have to advocate for your kid. There's only so much a kindergartener can do. And even if you could get him martial arts training, what is he gonna do, give the bully a karate chop and then get sent to the office for being the aggressor? That's what's going to happen, and the bullys' moms will be all "waah waah waah, our snowflakes are the victims here." Talk to the principal, say this is completely unacceptable. Do not let the principal tell you the solution is to keep your kid inside while the bullies get to be jerks to someone else's kid. Demand that the school get a Playworks coach -- they teach the kids schoolyard games to keep them engaged so they don't become bullies out of sheer boredom, and they also teach the bullied kids how to change the interaction (but kinder is really too young to expect this!!!). 

    I don't think it's odd that he wouldn't know who took the bully to the office. 

    The teacher should be better at intervening and changing this behavior. The school should have an anti-bullying policy. At our school (in WCCUSD), the teachers of the young grades (K-2) are geniuses at redirecting the energy of aggressive kids and drawing out their better selves. I've watched it happen. They are not usually terrible kids, they just need an abundance of guidance. 

    Go forth and advocate! Give 'em hell!! 

    I think it's appropriate that you speak to the principal, and teachers. Afterwards, write an email thanking them for meeting/speaking with you, and recap what you discussed. Print out the email and keep it in a folder, along with a piece of paper noting any incidents, as far back as you can remember. Hopefully this will get straightened right out, but if not, you have a record. The teachers may already be aware of these first-graders, and there may be other kindergartners now or in the future who will be a target. Yours can be part of a communal response to help the first graders understand the meanings/consequences of their actions.

    As far as the accuracy of your son's reports: believe him. He needs you to believe him, AND you can assume that you don't know all sides of the story when you speak to the teachers. It doesn't surprise me, for instance, that he can't remember if it was a male or female adult who took the kid to the office - your son was stressed out from the incident, and wasn't thinking clearly, as anyone would be.

    The kidpower class sounds great, and my concern about encouraging him to hit back is that HE would then get in trouble, which would be so dang unfair! My kid was bullied in K/1st too, and I spoke to the principal who spoke to the parents, which worked.

    Ari F-M

    Just in regards to your question about "do I have to go the to principal?" 

    Yes! That's what she's there for. Bullying shouldn't be tolerated. And the monitors should be actively monitoring your son and the others at this point. Ask the administrator to sit in with you and the teacher. Not because you want to get the teacher "in trouble" or anything but because you are a team. 

    From this point on you must become a warrior with no patience who will absolutely not accept wishy-washy responses from cautious bureaucrats hiding behind Cali-soft peace-at-all-costs policy.  Your kid is getting intimidated & assaulted.  So be nice enough not to assault principals or teachers but DO intimidate them.  Do some research to find out the hardball consequences with which you can threaten hesitant adults if they hem & haw.  

    Understood, it's difficult for school officials to act decisively against bullies (especially in California, especially in Berkeley).  But be alert:  the instant someone seems to be afraid of going 'too strong' against bullies & hurting their 'confused' childish natures, you call "Bullshit!" & bring the attention back to yoyr kid getting assaulted.  The instant someone seems to be afraid of possibly angering the bully's parents, show that YOU are ALREADY angry & every bit as likely to take legal action as any defensive parents of rough kids.  

    Bullies & often their parents laugh at the counseling-style consequences brought to bear on their 'emotionally confused child' who likes to beat the crap out of a weaker child.  Bullies are not all 'misunderstood,' they are violent.  THEY HURT YOUR CHILD.  Doesn't that outrage you?  So show it & get results.

    You might read the chapter "Bullies" in the book "Boys Will Be" by Bruce Brooks (1993, Henry Holt).  A bit dated, a bit rough, but perhaps also a bit spine-stiffening.

    I'm sorry this is happening and want you to know you are not alone. It happens all the time, but that does not in any way excuse it or mean you shouldn't take action. I think it is perfectly appropriate to go to the principal: s/he is an available resource and should be able to help. You don't have to know the answers (including how much your kid may or may not be "exaggerating"): you just know that your kid is having a hard time during recess and he needs the adults in his life to help him out. Principals have a professional duty to make sure all kids are in a safe learning environment, and with any luck your principal will help you understand what is going on and help you come up with an effective response (hopefully involving the classroom teacher as well). Please don't be reluctant to use the principal as a resource. I don't think you should talk to the parents yourself, but this is something you can discuss with the principal, too. 

    I have a child who, when younger, seemed to attract bullies. I found that some principals are effective in the way they handle these things, and some are not. I think you stand a pretty good chance in BUSD of having a principal who responds well, but follow up and keep checking. You are your child's advocate, and I think it is very important to act and take what the child says seriously. In general, I think kids only complain about these things to parents when things are really a problem for them (I know there are exceptions, and every kid has a different way of interpreting and communicating these things, but remember YOU KNOW YOUR KID BEST, so trust your judgement about what he is saying. The exact details don't have to be 100% accurate: the point is that something is going on that is creating problems for him). 

    Kid Power is a great resource. Some martial arts studios offer classes specifically for younger children. We loved Studio Naga on San Pablo Avenue. They teach an Indonesia form of martial arts, and have a class specifically for 5 to 7 year olds (sometimes includes even younger kids, or beginners who are older). Studio Naga has a wonderful, inclusive, family friendly environment, lots of kids of different ages (many of them great role models), very kind and dedicated teachers, and experience with kids who are shy. One reason I love the studio is that the senior leadership are women, which tends to make it less macho feeling than many martial arts I've had contact with (though the leadership is still totally tough and bad-ass). Call them up and ask to speak with Louise, who runs the studio, and tell her your specific concerns. 

    Best wishes to you and your son. Sounds like you are being wonderfully proactive. Kids can really be mean, and it is the duty of adults to show them how to be kind and respectful. 

    Yes, go to the principal. Let your son know that you have his back (literally). He's too young to have to do this for himself! He needs to know you will make sure he is safe and your actions will speak louder than your tutoring him.

Archived Q&A and Reviews

  • Lunch recess - lack of supervision on bad weather days
  • How to help my 7 y.o. self-regulate on playground
  • First Grader's boredom during recess

Lunch recess - lack of supervision on bad weather days

Jan 2011

We have yard duty staff for our public school. I found out today though, that on bad weather days students are sent back to their classes with 'check-ins' by the yard duty staff (3 or 4 adults per 225-250 students). The ratio is 1:70 or 1:80. Lunch period is roughly an hour, where the children eat their lunch in the multi-purpose room for 20-30 minutes, and then have recess time. My child is a first grader, and I wondered what other schools do on bad weather days for class supervision when teachers go on break? I am not in favor of children being left in unsupervised situations, and this seems dangerous to me. I'm looking for solutions that keep children safe. Thanks! Concerned Parent . . .

You are not alone in thinking this is extremely dangerous. I recently discovered that my child's elementary school has a similar policy, except that the kindergarten classes are "supervised" during indoor lunch recess by two fifth graders, with the paid recreational supervisors occasionally checking on the class.

I fully appreciate that teachers need a duty break for lunch (they deserve it), but why would the district risk leaving 25 kindergartners in a room with two unfamiliar 10-year olds? A child could easily wander away or be lured out of the classroom, there could be an earthquake or lockdown, and no one is available to enforce the school's no-bullying policies at a time when children are most vulnerable. At best, you have 25 kids going wild on a rainy day. At worst, it's a missing child.

Our elementary school has experienced at least two incidents during the past year requiring a police response to confront strange men found on campus during school hours. In one incident, the man was wearing a school sweatshirt, brought a video camera, and was attempting to film young girls on the blacktop. In the other, a different man was seen on campus studying the posted class lists, and then loitering right outside the school gates during recess. Neither man had children who attended the school. When you add in that public schools no longer require background checks for any class, field trip, or lunchtime volunteers (this was a recent amendment to the Education Code), it's a disaster waiting to happen. Even if the district is comfortable discounting safety concerns, you'd think they'd be concerned about the enormous lawsuit on the horizon.

I'm working on trying to change this at our school, and would appreciate if you would post again if your school comes up with a different solution. another concerned parent

Well first of all let me tell you how sorry I am that you are challenged with this. I am a teacher of 24 years (10 in public schools). You are right this is NOT safe & not the best situation for your child. Unfortunately, the schools hands may be tied budget wise from doing anything else. Volunteers might not be the answer due to liability. I recommend that you first take steps to ensure your Childs safety with self protection skills. You will feel much calmer & you'll know your child is safe in these kinds of situations. Changing the schools practice? Speak up with compassion as it may be difficult for them to do much more. I'm guessing lots of red tape & politics are involved. Good luck as I am an optimist, but I am no longer in the public school system as a teacher due to too many direct services being cut from our childrens lives. I think it is time for all parents (me included) to work together to bring back more programs for our children & safety is definitely one of them. Best of luck & you are great parent for recognizing an unsafe situation Concerned parent & educator

This is in response to a lack of disaster preparedness and supervision from a parent with the same concerns. The post requested information about any actions others take - here is what I have done. In my child's Berkeley public elementary school, there is no continuous adult supervision during rainy day lunch recesses, because teachers are at lunch. I initially raised this concern when my child was in K and got a unconcerned response from the responsible supervisor as well as the principal, who has since left. I am trying again, now, two years later, to express concern about this, because the ''practice'' continues. I am also addressing the lack of an adequate disaster preparedness plan at the school. I reviewed it at the office and it is shockingly inadequate, with numerous blank forms, etc., especially given that we are in earthquake country and the requirement to have a disaster preparedness plan with specified elements has been law for a decade. I have written an email to the new principal requesting a meeting and citing to relevant state education code laws that make it clear it is unlawful not to have a plan that provides for the continual safe supervision of students. See Cal. Ed. Code Sections 44814 and 32281-32289. I would like to hear what others have done who have similar concerns. I intend to follow this up -- and not by sitting as a volunteer at numerous safety committee meetings. I don't have the time, and the responsibility to make appropriate plans should not be placed on volunteers. We need school districts and schools to take full responsibility to make comprehensive plans for safe public schools. An alarmed parent

How to help my 7 y.o. self-regulate on playground

Oct 2010

My son is 7 and in the 2nd grade. This school year, we've had several reports (already) about overly aggressive play on the playground. Finally, today, I got a call from the principal that my boy chased after a boy, grabbed him by the neck and wouldn't let go. He also left some scratch marks on the back of the boy's neck. When asked about it, he said that another boy told him to do it because he (the other boy) didn't like how the child was playing.

When asked the ''instigator'' said he only told my boy to chase the other boy. This all happened in the context of a chase game happening at recess. This is the second time my son has gotten so aggressive he hurt another kid at the request of someone else. There have been other incidences as well, where he hurt someone accidentally because he didn't know how to keep himself from getting over excited while playing. I have talked to him about putting himself in the shoes of the other boy before he reacts. It has always been clear that I will never find the excuse ''well, joe asked me to do it'' to be a reasonable excuse.

So... what now? I can't monitor him during school, he needs to be able to control himself. I tell him that he will lose his friends if he continues to be too rough. We have other consequences at home, too. What do I do? How do I motivate him? I really need some advice from folks who have been through it and come out the other side. Anon

I don't have a child who can't self-regulate, but my son's best friend has been that child. At the start of last year, when he met this boy in kindergarten, I was very hesitant about letting the friendship flourish because the boy could not control his impluses and overwhelmed my son physically sometimes and hurt him. However, his teacher, who is a goddess, encouraged me to let the friendship blossom, and I am glad I did, because the boy is so much better now and a great friend to my son. It took a lot of concentrated effort by his parents and this wonderful teacher, using gentle reinforcements, a series of ratings (he'd get a green or yellow star depending on how well he controlled himself) at both school and home, and constant vigilance, but it has paid off. He still has impulse control issues, but they are so much less. In addition, we have taught our son how to assert his boundaries and say ''no'' and it works well. You need to get your son's teacher and the school on board so they will work with your son and monitor him (not in a bad way). It needs to be constant, with every initiation of inappropriate behavior nipped in the bud before it gets to the actual hurt phase. Constant, constant, constant. Talk to his teacher. I hope she's as good as this kid's teacher was. Good luck.

Actions on the playground are hard to monitor, sometimes even when you are present, but there should be hard-line rules that never get crossed. We all know the rule about ''never running with scissors or holding a parent's hands when crossing the street (for really young children)'', these are all safety rules and on the playground, they can be ''safety rules as well.'' Maybe you and your son can come up with certain rules together. Start with, NO hands on someones face or neck. Even something as innocent as going up behind someone and covering their eyes to surprise them could lead to poking a finger in the eye and causing it's best to have certain ''hard-line'' rules. This is what we do with our boys and it works --even when they observe other children on the playground doing the contrary, they don't feed in. Good luck. Anon

First Grader's boredom during recess

Jan 2005

Hi, I would like some advice on how to best help my son. He attends 1st grade at a small public school (less than 400 students). He used to claim recess was his favorite part of school and now he says he gets bored during recess. It appears that the friend he often played with is playing with someone else now. He has other friends and when I ask why he doesn't play with them he shrugs and says he has a hard time finding them during recess. When I help brainstorm what else he could do, he finds negative ''excuses'' for why he is not interested in any of the other possibilites. I am concerned that his lack of interest in participating will end up alienating him from his peers. I don't want to discuss this with him too much, for fear I'll add more negativity to the issue. Not sure how to help! anon

This is a good area to leave fully in your child's hands. It will not be so traumatic to cause lifelong esteem problems if he ''fails'' socially at recess. It is a good experience for him, to learn life does not always go one's way, so he can learn how to deal with that sort of thing [perhaps he will develop more social skills or seek out new friendships].

This is a good opportunity for YOU to learn that you cannot always fix things for him. It's a very small way for him to learn self-sufficiency. Perhaps he will get bored enough that he will be motivated to search out different kids to play with. These things have a way of working themselves out. Either way, it's his personal time to stretch and grow, even if he has to be bored while figuring it out.

I know it's painful to watch your child struggling with lack of friends, but it is really something they have to figure out, at least while at school. You can still arrange after-school playdates if you're that worried about it. Proponent of teaching Self-Sufficiency