I spend over an hour every weekday walking around a playground at an elementary school. In that time, four hundred kids, from ages 5 to 11 run the grounds.
Our playground is outfitted with all the usual equipment, swings, slides, monkey bars, climbing apparatus, sand to dig in, a concrete basketball court with six hoops, four square and even a kickball corner, a huge grassy field with four separate soccer goals and room to spare. We have boxes filled with soccer, basket and kick balls, and stacks of hula hoops.
And so today, as I blew my whistle for the fifth time in one minute and walked up to the second graders, my exasperation got the better of me. “Are you guys kidding me?” I asked in a not terribly friendly voice, “How many times have I talked to you about this?”
The boys looked uncomfortable and shrugged, wondering how much trouble they were in.
“What are our playground rules?” I asked.
“No tackling.” They all mutter looking at each other.
One brave soul starts to say, “Well, we were playing this game-.”
“Nope,” I said, not even letting him finish. “Go find something else to do,” I ordered and they scurried off relieved it wasn’t worse.
As they ran off, I looked around, searching for the next thing about to go wrong. I found myself catalouging everything I’d blown the whistle for today.
Standing up on the tire swing
Sitting on the highest top pole of the monkey bars
Pretending to fight with a sword
Pretending to shoot
Pretending to be a zombie (our zombies actually bite so it’s been a problem)
To get kids out from under the trees (we can’t see them well and it’s close to the fence)
To stop a girl who ran into a football game of boys and stole their ball
Lifting a huge graveled chunk of blacktop
Playing with a stick
Some may find this ridiculous but it’s what happens if we don’t do something that makes it ridiculous.
For years, I took my kids to the park after school and shooed them out of the car to play. I would sit and enjoy the silence, reading or talking to my aunt on the phone, while I kept a casual eye on what the kids were doing. If one of them got hurt or scared, they’d come to the car. My only requirement was that they were in sight and the wide open playgrounds here easily accommodate that. They climbed and hung and slid and got dirty with abandon. Safe with mom, but safely independent.
It is this memory that makes me sad at the number of times I say no on the school playground on any given day. Sad that the only way they can use the equipment is in the appropriate manner, sad that there are specific ways they must play and interact with each other. As a worker in a school, I get the why, I get the responsibility, I get the liability. It just doesn’t make me any happier. After it’s all said and done, safe and appropriate is no way to inspire a curious mind.