According to a recent article in the Tribune de Genève, a primary school in Eaux-Vives has decided to try to limit the space for soccer in the schoolyard to favor different types of games among students. This seems a worthy goal. At the least, it shows that attention has been given to what happens in the schoolyard between classes.
My daughter rolled her eyes at me, as is her wont. “No,” she snickered, as daughters have a habit of doing to their fathers, “it’s a bench for those kids who have no one to play with during recess. They sit on the bench and other students drop by to ask them to play. No one is supposed to pass the recess alone. The other students naturally reach out to those on the bench,” she explained, as if I were coming from another world.
I was coming from another world. Recess for me had always been about playing ball, with little thought about others except those who had gotten in the way of my group’s game. Recess had always been “our” time, with as little supervision or direction as possible.
Let’s walk through the Norwegian experience. Recess there appears as part of a larger socialization process that includes working and playing with others. Beyond the mere integration of boys and girls, other social skills are being developed. The Norwegian children who have no one to play with are not ashamed to sit on the bench to show they are alone. And the other students easily go to the bench to ask those sitting to play with them. No heckling. No marginalizing. A natural reaching out starts at a very early age. The “friend bench” exists in many primary schools throughout the country, I learned from my daughter.
As a former teacher of elementary through high school grades I used to do an experiment. I would ask the students to review with me what had happened the previous day in class. The results of the experiment were always mixed, at best. Often there would be a general agreement on the subjects covered, but rarely were there specifics about what had been discussed.
When I asked the students to describe what had happened during their free time, almost unanimously they could tell me what they had done and who had said what. Over the course of time, I realized, unabashedly, that the students’ free time during recess was the highlight of their day. My lessons, in all honesty, played second fiddle.
The idea that school time is limited to the three Rs - reading, writing and arithmetic – ignores the importance of socialization. “Works and plays well with others” should be an important, if not the important evaluation of a young child’s school activities. How the recess period is organized should be as scrupulously prepared as academic lessons. And, perhaps, those responsible for supervising recess should be specialized instructors. While “free time” should not be as regimented as class time, it should be recognized as an important part of a child’s learning experience. Those Norwegian children who reach out to those sitting on the “friend bench” will certainly be empathetic citizens later in life.
While the efforts of the XXXI Décembre elementary school in Geneva are praiseworthy, in comparison to the Norwegian system there is still much more development needed to integrate social skills like the “friend bench” into the entire school day’s activities.