As even more attention than usual is given to the bullying issue during National Bullying Prevention Month this October, much of the emphasis seems to be on teaching children – and adults – what constitutes bullying behavior. Often, there is a list of “don’ts:” “don’t do this, don’t do that.” But I believe that approach may be missing a key opportunity to address this ongoing issue.
Bullying is a serious problem, and the experience can be a scary and painful one – sometimes with effects that are irreversible. So it makes sense that our collective response would be strong and emotional. In looking at the research, however, there is reason to believe that this intense response fails to create the change we want to see.
Too often, anti-bullying campaigns and programs focus on the symptoms rather than addressing the root cause of the problem. At Playworks, where we help elementary schools to create safe and healthy recess and other play experiences, we have found that showing children how to play together can make a big difference in the prevalence of bullying.
Recess is where many young children first learn to interact on the playground, especially in communities where organized sports or free play outside of school is just not an option. And this is a place where children can learn the social and life skills that will make them good citizens and help them get along in the schoolyard, in class, and beyond. Here is where they can learn empathy and how to respect one another and play fair. By teaching children rules, and how to resolve disagreements with simple conflict-resolution tools, we can establish a new, positive way for children to play together.
With a well-run recess, students have a variety of games to choose from and every kid gets to play. No one is sitting on the sidelines, feeling scared or excluded. Children get high-fives for trying as well as for winning. The atmosphere is one of inclusion and comaraderie. If a child falls on the playground, a dozen kids will gather around her to see if she’s hurt. Nobody is laughing or making fun at a flop or a missed basket. Trained staff on the playground have created a changed environment where bullying simply doesn’t make sense. They are modeling a healthier way to interact, and kids don’t feel the need or incentive to bully anyone.
If this scenario sounds too good to be true, I can tell you that as the head of Playworks for the past 18 years, I have seen firsthand how children can transform their behavior during recess. And the good news is that the compassion and social skills they learn at recess aren’t left in the schoolyard. In just one of hundreds of examples we’ve heard, a Chicago elementary school principal told us of the 180-degree change he witnessed at his school’s annual spelling bee: in years past, children in the audience would boo when a contestant got a word wrong; after the recess transformation, those same kids would applaud students on the stage after a missed word.
For those who want to take a look at the quality of recess at their child’s school, we have developed a list of questions that parents can ask along with some tips to help create a better recess experience for their kids and their classmates.
If we are to stop the problem of bullying, we must instill in children at an early age the ability to empathize with and respect their peers. Recess is one place to start.