It appears that “playground consultant” is a real job, not the punchline of a joke about unbearable helicopter parents in Brooklyn.
Playworks provides professionals, or trains school staff, to run non-competitive games during recess. Adults lead the games and make the rules. Kids can choose whether to participate, so long as they don’t exclude any other children. The adult-led games, however, have first priority for playground equipment.
The company notes the importance of play to children’s learning and development, a point I wholeheartedly agree with (I’ve co-authored an academic paper that discusses some of the benefits of pretend play.)
But Playworks seems to think that “play” simply means getting physical exercise or participating in an adult-led game. That’s one small kind of play. It’s more like another form of gym class. Gym classes are great! But they aren’t recess.
Play develops creativity, problem-solving skills, and self-confidence. The playground consultants assume that these skills emerge as readily from playing a game of, say, Duck Duck Goose that was organized by an adult as they do from scampering on playground equipment, scooting down slides, or pretending to be medieval knights performing amazing feats of derring-do. The consultants are probably wrong.
In one study, for example, experimenters handed 4-year-olds a toy with a variety of brightly colored PVC pipes emerging from it. Hidden inside some of the pipes were items designed to captivate the 4-year-old heart, such as a squeaky noise, a light, and a mirror that reversed their faces.
For some children, an experimenter taught them how to find the squeaky noise. For other children, the experimenter pretended to find the squeaky noise by accident and be surprised by it. The experimenter then left the room and told them to play with the toy.
Children who were taught how to use the toy did make more squeaky noises. The students who weren’t taught but observed the squeaky noise, however, played with the toy longer. More important, they discovered more of its hidden delights. They had more inquisitive, more creative play.
When children are taught exactly what to do, they explore and discover less. They assume the teacher has given them all the relevant information, and they don’t need to probe on their own.
Alison Gopnik is a psychologist and philosopher at Berkeley who has spent years studying children’s play. She wrote, “Teaching is a very effective way to get children to learn something specific—this tube squeaks, say, or a squish then a press then a pull causes the music to play. But it also makes children less likely to discover unexpected information and to draw unexpected conclusions.”
Playworks’ “about” page explains why the company’s existence is “necessary.” “Our experience,” it says, “is that diminishing opportunities for unsupervised play in our society have left kids with a very thin understanding of how to manage their own play and that it is important to have grown-ups introduce some basic rules to make play work.”
So apparently, kids have not had enough unsupervised play to do it properly. The solution, then, is to continue to prevent them from having unsupervised play? We’ve hovered and intervened so much that now they can’t play without us hovering and intervening?
An unscientific observation: I have three kids under 8 years old. I spend a distressingly large percentage of my time milling around playgrounds. The kids romp while parents usually stare at their phones or talk to other parents. I have noticed no fall-off since my childhood in the capability of children to climb monkey bars or pretend the wood chips are lava.
Playworks supports its mission with evidence that its structured, adult-led playtime led to less bullying, kids feeling more safe at school, more physical activity, and a quicker transition from recess back to learning.
It’s worth noting that all these benefits, including how safe the kids felt, were reported by the teachers. Still, it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that kids really do feel safer playing a non-competitive game than they do being, say, chased by other children in a game of tag.
I’m sure, too, that kids would feel safer—indeed, would be safer—playing soccer in a padded suit and helmet. But there are trade-offs we are unwilling to make, even for safety.
The children who were directed by experimenters how to use the tube toy had a trade-off—they learned more efficiently at the cost of creativity. Kids being directed by adults at a playground may gain in safety and in activity. But they surely lose on exploration, joy, and spontaneity.
They also lose out on the benefits of small risks. Learning how to avoid a little bit of real danger may be important for emotional development. One study suggests that allowing children to take small risks actually makes them safer in the long run.
It is also not surprising that bullying decreases with adults leading games. There are other ways to decrease bullying, however: more non-interfering adults on the playground, classroom curricula and staff training, transparent reporting procedures, clearly delineated activity areas, even (as a last resort) cameras.
Playworks clearly is driven primarily by the desire that no child feel excluded. That is an admirable goal. But playground consultants prevent exclusion at the heavy cost of an independent recess, at a time when the duration of recess is ever dwindling.
One way to reduce exclusion might very well be structured activities of the sort Playworks promotes at a time other than recess. They might be beneficial for encouraging cooperation and understanding among kids of different abilities or class or ethnic backgrounds. And more physical activity is always a plus. One idea is to maintain a free play recess but expand physical education time.
There may be certain schools where many children have far too little structure in the rest of their lives, so the adult-led games provide a welcome respite. In these schools, the trade-off might well work in Playworks’ favor.
The Minnesota Star Tribune quotes Shauna McDonald, the Minnesota executive director for Playworks, as saying the company’s goal is to make kids “incredibly successful adults.”
Here’s a research topic that is unlikely to face the scrutiny of scientists any time soon: the correlation between incredibly successful adults and the quality of playground time they had as children. There is simply no evidence that adult-led playground time will result in successful adults.
Anyhow, life doesn’t begin at age 21. Childhood can be an amazing, wondrous time. Instead of being so sharply focused on their distant future, maybe we should make incredibly successful kids. (As it is, by the time they are adults, they’ll be—like their parents—spending too much time toting their own children to Mandarin and guitar lessons to self-actualize.)
The Playworks program has not been met with a wellspring of child-like joy. According to the Star Tribune, parents at one of the schools in Edina have started a petition against the program. The fifth-graders have started one of their own.
There is indeed an evidence-based way to improve recess with something that’s been shown to increase physical activity, increase inclusion of children of all abilities, and improve children’s mood and concentration—all while maintaining the spontaneity and independence of recess. For $30,000, you could make one totally fabulous children’s garden.