why we need adult recess

I am at a picnic table in my neighborhood park under the canopy of live oaks, taking in the  weather and failing to write. Suddenly, my fanciful outdoor office is invaded: teachers from the elementary school down the street have brought a swarm of children for recess. Soon I am surrounded. Some kids are buzzing about on the playground in front of me; ten or so have PE class on the basketball court behind me.

The class of six-year-olds behind me is consumed for at least five minutes in the intricacies of lining up behind Zoe, counting off by ones and twos, putting on their listening ears, not touching the cones and jump ropes, and watching their teacher demonstrate their activity. She is kind to them, but the main duty of her job seems to consist in admonishing them, most especially when they have failed to stay in “their group.” Finally they are released to crawl through a tunnel she’s brought, jump through a hopscotch, bounce a ball around some cones. In their groups. Basically, they are completing a much more colorful version of the circuit-based interval training I put myself through this morning. The patient teacher compliments them once: when the exercise is over, and they have put their various implements neatly away. The kids are quiet. They are none so happy as when they form a tiny shuffling conga line and give an impressive performance as a choo-choo train chug-a-chugging back to the playground; then this, too, is cut short so that they can “walk quietly” the final ten yards to the gate.

I did not come to this park to conduct an impromptu evaluation of the education policies at the elementary school down the street, but the contrast between the exasperated teacher’s voice behind me and the wild, shrieking, busyness in front of me leads me to wonder how on earth the regimented routine is Physically Educating children in any way that simple play cannot. I cannot see a single child on the playground who isn’t running, climbing, jumping, or balancing. In the process they are starting disputes and resolving them, inventing games, working together, building things. It escapes me why they should be interrupted to have hopscotch enforced upon them.

I’m irresistibly reminded of the little paragraph of Wendell Berry’s that this morning astonished me by calling tears to my eyes.

Scared for health, afraid of death, bored, dissatisfied, vengeful, greedy, ignorant, and gullible—these are the qualities of the ideal consumer. Can we imagine a way of education that would turn passive consumers into active and informed critics, capable of using their own minds in their own self-defense? It will not be the purely technical education-for-employment now advocated by the most influential “educators” and “leaders.”

Let me be allowed to escape charges that I condemn PE wholesale when I say that the main goal the six-year-olds appeared to be pursuing was to not exasperate the teacher, and their main lesson how to stay in line, follow instructions, and accept that one is a “1” or a “2” and that 1s do not mingle with 2s during Activities. How to show up on time, follow the boss’s policies, and accept a yearly raise that keeps one’s salary on pace with inflation.

I will not here outline my solutions for overhauling the American public education system, which consist chiefly in paying teachers as their profession—part-scholar, part-tutor, part-entertainer, part-psychologist, part-politician, part-administrator, part-wizard—warrants, as well as starting children on Plato and Aristotle by the age of 10 so they can graduate with a basic but thorough grasp of Foucault and Derrida.

Instead, I mean only to point out that much of the work of our twenties and far beyond is in unlearning what we have been taught, especially the implicit lessons formed by years of practice (along with the fears and habits instilled in unforgettable moments of trauma). And that we can live our whole lives having forgotten that our purpose is to invent games, work together, and build things, not to satisfy the teacher by completing assigned tasks. It is convenient to others that we forget this, and these others, themselves, work hard at telling us that our assigned tasks are so exhausting that we can’t possibly do those other things. Incidentally, it is convenient for them, too, if we are afraid of the world and afraid of each other. They offer us infinite entertainment (such as the pageantry of presidential elections) and we dream of a life where we can outsource all of the essential functions of our life—cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, errands, praying, neighborliness—so we will be left with responsibility only for our assigned tasks and our entertainment.

We wonder why we are always bored, tired, and alone. We undertake therapy or volunteering or extremely serious religiosity or drinking in hopes that we will become less frustrated. Perhaps they work to some degree.

But I wonder if we do not all have some other responsibility to ourselves and to the bored, tired world than to Be Responsible, a responsibility to find some big or small way to inject more recess into our lives. Not Physical Education like my circuit-training class; recess—to produce fun out of nothing but ourselves. To join a kickball team, audition for community theater, tell a child a story, bake some cookies, grow an herb garden, or just bring a coloring book with us to our nightly Netflix binge.

The same people who tell us that voting for a third party is morally wrong will probably tell us that these things are frivolous and selfish and un-Productive and therefore, un-American. But I think we will not even begin to escape the fears and frustrations and hurts that have recently been thrown into such relief until we take the time to learn from six-year-olds: that we are not just cogs in a tremendous economic machine. Each of us is a source of power, of creativity, of purely beautiful and joyous things, and together we are able to create new worlds.

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