Does Recess Need Coaching? Not in South Africa!

A few months ago, an article titled Does Recess Need Coaching caught my attention. It was about a turnaround of sorts in American schools. After years of shortening recess in favor of more academics, or even doing away with it altogether, recess seems to be on the rise again, no doubt based on a recent study. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) stands behind this newfound emphasis on kids’ play as a counterweight to academic rigor. But apparently, free play is out, and structured, supervised play is in.

I have two observations in response.

First, nowhere do you hear the words “studies have shown” as much as in the United States. It seems like we can’t make any decisions without first conducting a study. Want to know what makes us fat? Let’s conduct a study. How much TV time is good for our children? A study will tell us. Toilet paper over or under? Study please!

Don’t get me wrong, I am fully in favor of scientific research and drilling down into the facts to make informed decisions. Conversely, I am not particularly enamored with people who make decisions solely based on gut feel, who scorn facts, and who celebrate ignorance (any resemblance to real people in the American political environment is entirely coincidental).

But enough already with studying every last aspect of our lives. Some things are crystal clear. You want to lose weight? Eating less is a good start. (I’m already bracing for the outraged comments on this one.) TV for kids? I might as well go ahead and offend even more people. As a good friend of mine used to say, show me a child with ADD, and I’ll tell you how much TV they are allowed to watch. And the toilet paper? Well, it’s absolutely clear that it has to be over and that all people who say otherwise are sorely misguided, not to say morons.

What does any of this have to do with South Africa, you say?

It just seems to me that South Africa as a nation has more common sense in these matters. Anyone who has followed this blog for a while will know that I adored our kids’ South African school. And as private schools in Johannesburg go, it wasn’t anything special. Not only are most of these schools pretty similar the way they foster music, academics, and sports, encourage public speaking, and promote charity work and team building. It also seems to me that they haven’t changed all that much since, oh, the discovery of gold and the founding of Johannesburg in 1886. (And yes, I am aware that the South African school system is failing most of its children and that the majority of the population doesn’t have access to these fine private schools, but that’s another topic.) While the U.S. seems to be a fertile  breeding ground for the testing of new ideas (or, when it comes to schools, just testing, period), South Africa seems to chugging along as it always has without much of a care in the world.

Perhaps this is because South Africa has had bigger problems over the last few decades than conducting mundane studies.  Or perhaps international studies have bypassed South Africa for so long during the apartheid era that it has earned that one doesn’t have to pay attention to every fad. Or perhaps there just isn’t as much taxpayer money available to pour into studies.

But I think that at the end of the day South Africans just have a healthy common sense when it comes to, well, a lot of things. See my earlier post, Expat Joys: Legal Common Sense in South Africa, for some examples.

Recess at Dainfern College, Johannesburg, South Africa

My other observation about the aforementioned article has to do with the specter of “coaching” recess. When I read that, I wanted to scream “nooooo!’ No coaching during recess, please, and not even much supervising.

When our kids attended Dainfern College, we lived so close to the school that we could – and did – walk to and from school on foot. Sometimes multiple times a day. And my favorite time to walk over the leafy campus was recess. There would be hundreds of kids milling about, with no teacher to be seen. No one seemed to care whether the kids used the time to eat their lunch or not. Boys would be running around barefoot, their uniforms disheveled, kicking soccer balls that would frequently hit unsuspecting bystanders. Others would climb the monkey bars, and sometimes fall off of them. One particular child, without naming names, frequently had to run home to fetch the homework he forgot. Others might be sent by their teachers to the tuck shop to buy and deliver lunch – though my daughter says she was assigned this job more often during class than during recess.

My point is, unstructured play is good for kids. You might get more accidents, you might even get more bullying, but what you gain is kids learning how to find their social standing, blow off steam, and hone their skills at something they want to do of their own accord. South African kids seemed to lead a much less structured life than what we see here, and in my opinion they are better for it.

Recess at Diepsloot Combined School, Johannesburg, South Africa


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