At the elementary school that I used to teach at, the kids created a version of four square that they called “Skill.” It was a lot like the traditional game of Four Square that we played in my youth, but there were slight, esoteric rule changes and new vocabulary that made it nearly incomprehensible to adults. The game inevitably led to uncountable playground disagreements. The whistle at the end of recess would mark the moment when emotions would boil over and tearful students would enter the classroom, unable to learn, needing to get their Skill frustrations out into the open.
Needless to say, I did not hold Skill in high esteem. In fact, I’ll say it... I pretty much hated Skill. It was the silly creation that was more trouble than it was worth. In my expert opinion, it was a lesser form of the nearly perfect game of Four Square. It was an “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” situation.
In an attempt to quell the end of recess dramatics, we brainstormed solutions. We wrote down all the rules on a poster. We trained students to be Skill Referees. We used peer mediators to help with disagreements.
The Skill Drama. It continued.
I made threats. Skill would be banned from the playground. Individual students wouldn’t be allowed to play for weeks at a time. Calls would be made home to parents. Yes, I'll admit it. I might have gone as far as to say that I was going to pop the red bouncy balls used for the game of Skill.
I am not the type of person to threaten to pop red bouncy playground balls. Red bouncy playground balls are sacred objects to me. Things were spinning it of control.
And then, one day, I went outside and told the kids that I wanted to play.
I was pretty well versed in the general rules and vocabulary of Skill from my previous attempts to regulate it from my classroom. But upon trying to actually play the game, I found myself actually impressed with the level of intricacy and vocabulary that the students had developed. Somehow, all these kids, from all these different classrooms, more or less knew all the rules to this game that no adult could teach them. How was this happening? I was impressed.
Kids flocked around the four square court that we were playing on, the sight of a teacher playing skill obviously something that one had to see to believe. The moment that the recess bell ended (and on through the rest of the school day) students began to ask, "Will you play with us tomorrow?"
I’m not going to lie. I got pretty good at Skill. It didn’t happen in a single recess period. I got pretty good at this silly, kid-created game because I started going outside and playing Skill everyday. For weeks. It started with me going out for morning recess. And then I found myself rushing to eat my lunch because I wanted to get outside and play some Skill.
I was genuinely having fun. And the recess drama had completely disappeared in the process.
As it turned out, the world-ending problems that were presented at the end of recess were not huge fights but, more often than not, tiny disagreements that, without being solved in the moment, snowballed into something bigger. Little things like a disagreement if a ball was in or out of bounds. Or if someone cut the line. These were the same problems that would arise if they were playing regular, good old-fashioned Four Square. But, before I really understood the game, these problems felt bigger as they hid behind the unknown, esoteric vocabulary and rules of "Skill."
In going outside and playing during recess, I discovered one of the most wonderful perks of the teaching profession. I was being paid money (real money!) to go outside in the sunshine and play Skill, or basketball, or to jump rope during these recess periods.
Yes, it was during my “break.” But I started thinking about breaks. Breaks are best when we take a moment to step away from our work so that, when we return, we are able to focus on the tasks ahead.
Normally on my breaks, I would go grab another cup of coffee that I didn’t need. Maybe make some copies. Probably look at the Internet or check my phone. Have a conversation ruminating with a colleague about the challenges of our work. Always glancing at a clock to see how much break I had left.
Spending time outside, breaks began to flow. I got some sunshine. I had fun - not thinking about work. I got to know my students in a different way than I ever could inside the classroom. I got to know a lot of other students who were not in my class.
This sparked a change in the way that I view our work as educators.
Our profession gives us the wholly unique ability to play games, paint, and learn alongside our students. It is genuinely fun but we rarely take advantage of it. Things get in the way. Kids are painting? Perfect time to bang out some grading or prep tomorrow's lessons, right? We rarely slow down and experience school alongside our students.
The best part is that when we do, everyone benefits. Classroom and playground management issues tend to fall away. We see and get to know our students in new ways, as the people they really are. And it is easier to shed your teacher costume and be yourself - your students get to see the real you action.
Go outside. Learn the esoteric rules of recess games and play with your students. Next time an art project rolls around, pick up a paintbrush and make a painting. When a lesson comes around with content that you haven’t mastered yet, be transparent that you are learning, shoulder to shoulder, alongside them.
Everyone will benefit, teacher and student alike.
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