There have been a few articles lately, comparing the amount of time spent outside each day by schoolchildren and prison inmates. The results are… depressing. It’s a travesty that children are spending their days locked inside, with their faces held to the grinding stone of endless stupid worksheets. I usually try to be more gentle in my tone when writing online, but honestly. This is insane, and if we were hanging out in person you’d be treated to my full routine of militant soapbox ranting.
Instead, here’s another question with an equally depressing answer: When children are allowed outside during the school day, what sort of places can they go? I’ve been asking this in workshops for awhile now, to designers and teachers and everyone else who would rather be looking at adorable pictures of adventure playgrounds (they get those too, but the contrast is important).
I show this slide.
These are pictures of school playgrounds that I found on google. One is helpfully vintage, black and white and reminding us that our ‘modern’ formal educational model is still deeply rooted in the factory system. Two are contemporary playgrounds in different countries, showing how little this notion has changed across hundreds of years and thousands of miles. The fourth is Alcatraz.
The playgrounds that we think of as conventional (or, heaven help us, ‘normal’) in schools are highly standardized. They are large tarmac squares, fenced in. Sometimes there is equipment, all of it focusing on the gross motor release of ‘excess’ energy. Any stones are removed. Any loose parts prohibited. And so, not only do our children spend less time outside than prisoners – they spend that time in a space almost indistinguishable from a prison yard. No wonder so many recess supervisors stand at the edges with their arms crossed, making up new rules every day. Their most obvious role, in a place like this, is security guard.
A prison yard is what you get, when you design for maintenance and surveillance. These big, empty squares with a few places to lift your body around – these are spaces built to contain a population that authorities do not trust. Every corner speaks of fear: adults fear children, which in turn breeds children’s fear of one another. No wonder educators are so worried about conflict at recess. They have accepted as conventional a space which fosters hierarchies and gangs, which privileges the strong over the weak, which both requires sneakiness to survive and punishes brutally any subversion.
But then, people might say, if school playgrounds looked like this for so long then why is the problem suddenly so urgent?
Here’s why. Because crappy as the school yard is, it’s also most children’s best chance of playing outside at all that day. It’s almost certainly their best chance to meet peers, in a time that is comparatively self-structured. Recess time is vital, and the fact we give them so little opportunity is the real crime.