A Little Free-Range Moment at Recess

Hi Folks! Just spoke at the Wellesley Mothers Forum — really fun. And now comes this nice note. Hope springs! – L


Dear Free-Range Kids: I wanted to share with you my Free-Range moment with my fourth grade students.  In Ontario, we’re experiencing some political unrest in our schools due to the legislation of Bill 115, which strips teachers of their right to strike or take job action.  As a result, teachers are individually deciding NOT to volunteer with extra-curricular activities, especially ones that take place outside of the school hours.  I’m not trying to get into a debate about the role of the teachers or government in this but I think many will like what my students have done.


As a result, a few teachers at my school have decided to run a soccer house league during lunch hour for our students in grades 4-6.  We have about 150 students in these grades.  Typically, our extra-curriculars are very popular because most of our school population stays for lunch and we are a high needs, low-income area so free programs are usually filled quickly.  My colleagues and I were very surprised that only 12 kids signed up!  I asked my students why they didn’t sign up.  Did they not know about it?  Are they going home for lunch now?  Do they not have running shoes?  “No,” one of my students explained, “We’d rather go outside and play our own game of soccer.”  What???  “We don’t need a teacher to help us play a game.”
That’s right!  My students are capable enough that they can find a bunch of kids, a ball, some grass, organize their teams and a code of conduct for scorekeeping.  Imagine that!  Kids organizing their own sports and games!
Jennifer Tobin
Whitby, ON
PS Looking forward to hearing you at the Parents as Partners conference with Durham DSB later this month!
Thanks, Jennifer! How great to be reminded that kids don’t NEED us all the time! This idea of adults supervising and organizing everything for kids is new and unnecessary and sometimes even absurd!

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23 Responses to A Little Free-Range Moment at Recess

  1. a former aide October 10, 2012 at 3:15 am #

    Wow! I worked as an aide at an elementary school for 5 years and spent a lot of time on the playground watching grades K-5 play soccer. I would have loved it if they had told me they could play soccer on their own.

    But no, they were always complaining because they got hit by the ball or got kicked on the shin (like that’s not going to happen in soccer?), or someone wouldn’t pass to them, and so on. If they had an interpersonal issue they hated me because I would tell them to either deal with it and work it out, or stay away from each other on the field. They really wanted me to blame and punish the other person, but from what I could see they always both contributed to the problem.

    I am so happy that these Ontario kids can play on their own!!!

  2. Nanci October 10, 2012 at 3:49 am #

    That is awesome! I love kids coming up with their own games! My daughter is in 5th grade, and is currently a huge Hunger Games fan. A few weeks ago she told me she had made up a Hunger Games game to play at recess. The first day 3 kids played. Everyday it is grew and grew and within a week she had about 25 kids playing. Basically the kids grabbed mulch as their “weapons” and from there it was a tag game. After you were tagged 3 times you were out. Everyone run around trying to tag and not get tagged. After a couple of weeks it had become extremely popular so that she said no one was playing kickball anymore (I felt bad for the kid who had originated the kickball games!) Finally the teachers put a stop to it, my daughter was very upset. I told her since it was just tag, just to go ahead and play, tags not against the rules. She talked to the recess teachers and they had said it was because some kids were talking about killing each other when they would tag someone. The language about killing has stopped and the kids are happily playing their game again :)

  3. CrazyCatLady October 10, 2012 at 3:56 am #

    Nanci, I love your daughter’s imagination.

    I personally hated kickball. I think there generally was a game going on, perhaps run by a teacher, but I always avoided them and played my own games with like minded friends.

  4. Warren October 10, 2012 at 12:38 pm #

    I grew up close to Whitby, in nearby Pickering. Our game of choice was FootHockey. Pretty much the same as soccer, but the goal was made up of two jackets on the ground, and we used a tennis ball, instead of a soccer ball.

    I am proud to see that the kids in Ontario, are keeping the spirit.

  5. James October 10, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

    Wonderful! Kids are certainly capable when given the chance. I know there are a lot of kids who wouldn’t do this, though. I always wonder if it’s a result of all the organized sports teams starting as preschoolers. They never learn to just pick up a ball, gather some friends and play a game. They feel they have to be led by an adult. I noticed the article said this was a low income area. Perhaps most of these kids couldn’t afford organized teams and consequently have learned to play on their own. We don’t do organized sports teams as a matter of principle for our young kids (our oldest is 10), but encourage them to grab a ball, rally some neighborhood kids, and just play. It is a challenge! Not for our kids, but for the neighborhood kids. Some of the responses they’ve gotten is, “Oh, I play soccer on Tuesday and Thursday nights and Saturday morning.” “Who’s going to be the coach?” “Who decides if someone breaks the rules?” Not to mention for a while we’d have kids running inside tattling every 5 minutes, wanting me to make a judgement call. Of course I would refuse to and sometimes little players would stomp home pouting. Over time they have found a few kids that will join in and they have relaxed over time and admit they enjoy these impromptu games much more than their organized games. It definitely confirmed my gut instinct to stay away from these adult led teams while they were little. Now as they get older, they will be most welcome to join team sports if they are interested. Right now they are busy and having fun bringing “sandlot” sports back to our neighborhood. :)

  6. Hannah October 10, 2012 at 3:05 pm #

    We’ve noticed the same thing with our kids, James. We stay away from organized activities, as well, and we notice, compared to the other neighborhood kids, our kids are more capable of coming up with games and creative ways of playing them. I’m not saying kids in organized activities can’t be just as good at this, but in my experience of the ones I know, they do look for adult support in settling disputes and making rules more than my children do and they have more limited views on the ways things can played. Kudos to those children at recess in Canada. Hopefully their influence can spread. :)

  7. Jen Connelly October 10, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

    I don’t recall having recess as a kid (we lived in a low-income area, too) but we used to play sandlot style football and stickball. Right across from my house was an empty lot (from an old store that burnt down when I was a baby). It was usually overgrown but once in awhile someone would come cut the grass and weeds down and we’d all go over there and play ball with whatever we could find. Sometimes someone would have a bat, sometimes it was a real stick from one of the trees or it was an old broom. The balls could be anything (baseball, softball, racquetball, even a basketball (mini one) ).

    We even once played with a beach ball and a tennis racket and created our own hilarious short game (it was fast since the ball wouldn’t go very far). Everyone in the neighborhood knew the rules for these games and people would come and go as they could play. Other kids would sit on the old side steps of the building and watch or climb in the trees and hang out.

    It was a risky choice because there was a lot of broken glass around and eventually got so bad we couldn’t use the lot any more so we’d play in the street or in the parking lot of the school across the street. When we moved when I was 12 me and my brought these pick up games with us and taught our new friends and we’d play in the parking lot of the church across the street (never even broke a window). We used to play football and basketball, too. I think we even invented something like broom hockey.

    My kids… they don’t seem to have the same initiative to make up these games. They just sit around and complain their bored and that making up games is too hard. Sigh. They don’t even know how to play Red Rover or Mother May I (I think they learned Red Light, Green Light at school). Those were games me and my friends played all the time. My son and his friends are about the only one that play sports on their own. Football pick up games pop up at the park all the time and it’s kids from high school down to 2nd or 3rd grade. My son was in 3rd the first time one of the older kids invited him to play. He came home a few times crying the kids were “mean” to him (as in didn’t let him score or didn’t throw to him) but I always told him to get over it and he eventually went back to play and rarely comes home to complain any more (he’s now in 5th).

    They did invent “zombie tag” that them and their friends played after school all the time for awhile. I have no idea what they do at recess since they don’t have any space for soccer. They have a little playground and then the pack part of the parking lot. All the grassy area around their school are ball fields for the high school and are all fenced off.

  8. C.J. October 10, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

    Our kid’s school purchased new soccer and basketballs this year. Our principal asked the parents council if he could purchase them if their was enough fundraising money left over after purchasing 10 ipads for the school. Every class was issued a one or two of each. They are just for playing with at recess. There are other balls for gym class. The kids can play with other classes and their ball but each class is responsible for making sure their own ball makes it back inside. Our principal wanted to encourage the kids to run around more and teach them to be responsible with their own classes things. Our school is very big on promoting a healthy lifestyle with healthy food and lots of excersize. We live in Ontario but our kids go to a Catholic school so we still have extra curricular- activities. Even the kids that join the extra curricular- avtivities are still out there playing with the balls at recess. Between the balls that are provided at school and the balls that kids bring from home if you drive by our school at recess it can look a little crazy, there are balls everywhere! The kids are having a blast with all those balls!

  9. Heidi October 11, 2012 at 5:56 am #

    Off-topic, but Lenore, I thought you might appreciate this columnist’s take on the recent disappearance of a 10-year-old in Colorado:


  10. Kaye Figuracion October 11, 2012 at 7:06 am #

    It’s good to raise independent children. When you see a growing independent child and you’re a teacher. You feel proud because you know that even though, you are not blood-related, you are a part of that child.

  11. Lee Lee October 11, 2012 at 11:38 am #

    This weekend my 8 year old daughter had a bunch of friends over. I went to buy them Pizza and left them outside playnig. My mom lives in the next apartment but felt no need to have her hover over them while I was gone. I was pleasantly suprised when I came back and my parking area had been transformed into a netball court (similar to basketball but no dribbling allowed). They had taken sidewalk chalk and made the actually court and they used a hula hoop hanging from our high wall and the trees to make the net/basket. They had a blast. every time the net fell one of them had to climb the wall to fix it. It was hilarious. I told them I loved their creativity and revelled in the fact that they did it all alone and beat this, they played a sport on concrete barefoot or in flip flops too. :-)

  12. Brian October 11, 2012 at 12:31 pm #

    Just curious, how do you handle bullying, teasing, and kids not allowing others to join games?

  13. EB October 11, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

    In response to Brian: not sure how this is handled on school grounds, other than that teachers will intervene if egregious bullying or exclusion is going on. That’s legitimate reason for an adult to intervene. But away from school (and I spent my entire childhood playing pick-up games of baseball, touch football, and basketball), everyone is included because more players gets you closer to what a “real” game would look like. You might not feel totally friendly towards a kid, but you need her/him. If bullying had occurred we would either have all gone home until the bully went away, or we would have told the bully that bullying was against our rules.

  14. Emily October 11, 2012 at 1:39 pm #

    @C.J.–That’s a really good idea. A while ago, I read about a company called “Sportek,” that sold colour-coded sports equipment, so that schools could assign each grade level a different colour of basketballs, etc. The only problem was, they only came in six colours, and I’m from Ontario, where elementary school goes from K-8 (so, the schools here would have needed nine colours), but I still thought it was a pretty cool and creative way to address the problem of the school’s balls going missing on the playground.

  15. Sharon October 11, 2012 at 3:25 pm #

    My daughters fourth and fifth grade recess class has decided to organize a gymnastics club. The more advanced kids are teaching the ones (like my daughter) who aren’t as skilled. One of the rules is don’t do anything unless someone is watching. A boy already had a broken arm by falling on the pavement he wasn’t doing gymnastics or anything more athletic than walking.

    Fortunately no one has stopped them from doing the club. A couple of the kids practice after school. My daugher (goes to day care) and they let them mix with the non day care kids on school grounds as long as everyone behaves and no one grumbles when it is time for the day care kids to go in and start their homework or play inside. They have about an hour outside and I can definitely tell when she has had a chance to blow off steam. They will use the gym (that will be day care kids) only once it is too cold to go outside.

  16. C.J. October 11, 2012 at 3:37 pm #

    @Emily-That is a really great idea, too bad they don’t make enough colors.

  17. Emily October 11, 2012 at 5:46 pm #

    @C.J.–It probably worked well enough, because SportAbility (the actual name of the company; I made a mistake earlier) is an American company, and their schools are either K-6, or grades 1-6, so for at least some schools, six colours of balls would have been enough.

    @Sharon–The gymnastics club sounds like an awesome idea. Good on your daughter’s friends for starting it, and good on the school and the day care for allowing it.

  18. Donna October 11, 2012 at 6:42 pm #

    @ Emily – Actually American schools are usually k-5, 6-8, 9-12. There may still be a very small number of k-6 floating around, but they have pretty much gone the way of the dinosaur.

  19. Jennifer October 11, 2012 at 6:53 pm #

    Brian- I wasn’t suggesting that teachers are not supervising the students during recess. We always have teachers on yard duty but there are some teachers who choose to run activities at lunch recess that students can sign up for. My students just didn’t feel the need to sign up for an activity organized by an adult and would rather do their own thing. While my students play their games, there are teachers on the yard to help students who require it but these teachers are not putting the kids onto teams or keeping score. By having teachers on yard duty, you don’t erase bullying, teasing or excluding others but you do have an adult there so that if a student has a problem, there is someone there to help. My students have had SNAP (Stop Now, And Plan) training so they have the added benefit of having some tools to help them resolve the issues that arise on the school yard.

  20. Warren October 12, 2012 at 2:41 am #

    We have come a long way. I was thinking about our foothockey games, I wrote of earlier. We had one guy who broke his collar bone during a game. And the school never banned foothockey, or even modified it. It was written off a crap happens. Could you imagine now……….sheesh.

  21. Emily October 13, 2012 at 4:50 pm #

    Hey, while we’re on the subject of made-up games, who here has read Calvin and Hobbes? In those stories, Calvin invents a game called “Calvinball,” which just involves making up the rules as you go along. Also, Calvin and his tiger friend Hobbes (who Calvin sees as a real, anthropomorphized tiger, and adults just see as a stuffed tiger) spend a lot of time playing in the forest, tobogganing, building snowmen, etc., and his parents, his teacher, and the various other adults only have bit parts–in fact, his parents don’t even have names other than “Mom” and “Dad.” Anyway, my point is, Calvin seems to be the ideal model of a free-range kid, and if people treated the Calvin and Hobbes books of cartoon strips as parenting advice, they probably wouldn’t do too badly.

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  1. This Just In: Kids Can Organize Their Own Games - Hit & Run : Reason.com - October 12, 2012

    […] or "obvious," but a Canadian teacher who reads Lenore Skenazy's Free Range Kids blog has written in to report that a few teachers at my school have decided to run a soccer house league during lunch […]