To play, or not to play

Mike Bowler
Sun Staff

SUMMER IS a time for children's play. Good thing, too. They're allowed less and less of it at school.

As proof, consider the plight of recess, that 15- or 20-minute period of "nondirected activity" (play, to most of us) that in my time occurred twice every school day, and blessedly so. According to several reports, most recently one in this week's Economist, recess is going the way of Hutzler's (though there's hope of relief).

Some schools (and the entire Atlanta district) have canceled recess. One reason is fear of lawsuits over playground injuries. Another is a shortage of adults willing to supervise kids at recess. In many Maryland schools, recess has been crowded out by expanded instruction in reading and math and the extra time needed to prepare for standardized testing and the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP).

"How do you find enough time to do all the things you have to do now, especially if you're not going to lengthen the school day?" asks Patricia Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association.

Where recess is a part of a school day these days, it tends to be more structured, even didactic, with activities planned to sharpen academic skills - adding up rope jumps, for example.

But children need "loosey-goosey time," says Foerster, and a legion of others agree. In fact, some evidence of a backlash exists. Last year, Virginia became the first state to make recess a daily requirement, and other states and districts, Florida and Philadelphia, may follow. (Maryland has no state policy on recess, and practices vary by district and school.)

Ironically, proponents of unfettered recess are as serious as those in favor of abandoning it. In this country, the primary pro-recess organization is grandly titled the American Association for the Child's Right to Play. An earnest group based at Hofstra University in New York, the association researches the play of children and promotes its value.

An international network of such associations produced a "Declaration of the Child's Right to Play," a statement designed to be read in conjunction with Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989. Far beyond the issue of recess, it also was aimed at ending the exploitation of child labor.

If we eliminate recess, we are ignoring the fact that for many children the opportunity to play with friends is an important reason for coming to school, association President Rhonda Clements argues. She has a point. Ask any group of second-graders, "What do you like most about school?"

Other arguments: Recess serves as an outlet for reducing anxiety. It reduces fidgety classroom behavior. It gives the child an opportunity to exercise a sense of wonder, which leads to exploration and creativity. And in a nation in which 40 percent of 5- to 8-year-olds have cardiac risk factors such as obesity, recess encourages healthy growth.

It goes without saying that Japan is ahead of us on recess. In that country, long classroom sessions alternate with intense periods of outside play.

The introduction to the international declaration is rather eloquent, and I repeat it here:

"Children are the foundation of the world's future.

"Children have played at all times throughout history and in all cultures.

"Play, along with the basic needs of nutrition, health, shelter and education, is vital to develop the potential of all children.

"Play is communication and expression, combining thought and action; it gives satisfaction and a feeling of achievement.

"Play is instinctive, voluntary and spontaneous.

"Play helps children develop physically, mentally, emotionally and socially.

"Play is a means of learning to live, not a mere passing of time."

Towson University reaches its fund-raising goal early

As though answering a consultants' report critical of their fund-raising efforts, officials of Towson University announced last week that a seven-year capital campaign, Towson's first, has reached its $17.5 million goal a year ahead of schedule.

The announcement came as copies began circulating of an "institutional review" of Towson, conducted by a panel of outside experts. The $75,000 (plus expenses) report, requested by Towson's incoming president, Mark L. Perkins, says the school has "no other area ... . more in need of immediate attention" than fund raising.

Without mentioning the criticism, Hoke L. Smith, who leaves the presidency June 30 after 22 years, says, "The fact that we met and exceeded our goal ahead of schedule is a testament to the hard work of our staff. These gifts are an investment in our future, made by people who believe in our mission and want to be a part of our success."

The report is bound in Towson's colors, yellow and black, not orange and black, as I reported last week. An anonymous caller corrected my color-blindness.

MSPAP review panel short of people who've given test

The "Visionary Panel," a 40-member body of education leaders assigned to review MSPAP and other Maryland reform efforts, has among its members no elementary or middle-school classroom teacher and, so far as I know, only one member who has ever administered the MSPAP.

That was seven years ago, when Foerster, the MSTA head, was a middle-school teacher of the learning-disabled.

"Some are wondering if the report's already written, though I don't think so," Foerster says. She says some classroom teachers are acting as advisers to the panel.

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