Last week, my son was reprimanded by the school vice principal for playing with a ball that she thought was a squash ball in the gym during indoor recess. It wasn’t a squash ball (which she would have known if she had ever played squash, since squash balls don’t bounce like this one does, but that is beside the point), it was an acupressure ball (in fact, one of the balls pictured here). My son gets frequent headaches, and squeezing one of these balls when he has a headache helps relieve it, which is why he carries the balls in his school bag.
So, it was indoor recess, and he and another kid were bouncing this ball, and told they were not allowed to.
I was confused. Our conversation:
Me: are you allowed to bounce other balls in the gym?
Son: yeah. Like basketballs.
Me: What about tennis balls?
Son: I don’t know. I don’t know if they have any.
Me: So why aren’t you allowed to bounce this ball?
Son: Because it could hit somebody in the eye and hurt them.
Me: Huh. I suppose the basketball could hit somebody and hurt them too.
Son: I think it would hurt more to get hit by a basketball.
Me: I’ve been hit by a basketball. It hurts. Oh well, I guess if you’re not allowed to play with that ball in school, you need to just keep it in your bag.
Son: It’s stupid.
Me: Yep, it’s stupid.
Here’s the thing. My kids are frustrated. And I think a lot of other kids are frustrated too. Because we are now so concerned with making sure kids don’t get hurt that we don’t let them do anything that comes naturally to them. Especially on the school playground. They aren’t allowed to climb trees. They aren’t allowed to climb the giant snowhill in the school yard and play king of the hill. They aren’t allowed to use skateboards or scooters on school property. They aren’t allowed to skate or walk or slide on the ice rink behind the school unless they are wearing a helmet. They get yelled at if they walk on icy patches on the school grounds. They are not allowed to have snowball fights or even throw snow at each other. They aren’t allowed to do acrobatics on the various metal poles on the play structures. And they aren’t allowed to bounce balls that look like squash balls.
On top of that, much of the time, they aren’t even allowed to go out for recess. Why? Because they haven’t finished their in class work. Not because they are fooling around or being disruptive in class, or being disciplined for a behaviour problem. No, just because they are slow and distracted. This happens to my son frequently. My son, by the way, has grades varying between B+ and A+. The teachers have nothing but wonderful things to say about his personality and behaviour. But he has ADHD and thus is more distracted and slower to get work done. So he gets to spend even MORE time sitting in a classroom struggling to pay attention rather than getting what little time at school is allowed for running around. Well, what limited running around is allowed that is.
When I was the same age as my kids, we rode our bikes to school without helmets. We put on roller skates and pointed ourselves down the huge hill on my street — ON THE STREET. Also without a helmet. We skied and skated without helmets. We bounced whatever kind of balls we wanted during recess. We threw them at each other. We also threw snowballs at each other. We spun around doing acrobatics on playground poles under we were dizzy or sick. Speaking of dizzy, we spun ourselves around in circles until we couldn’t walk (I still do that sometimes). And we had piggyback fights at recess. This was where you took someone on your back, or got on someones back and rammed repeatedly into other people, trying to knock the person off their back. Nobody told us to stop. Nobody got seriously hurt. Some skinned knees and the very, very occasional broken bone. I think I knew one person who broke their wrist. No concussions. No hospitalizations. No deaths.
You know what else there was very little of? Bullying. Sure, kids picked on each other (they always have and they always will), but for the most part, we were too busy to be bothered. And should the rowdy games start to get out of hand, usually one of the kids would step in and say — whoa, too much. We learned whether certain risks were worth taking — like whether we were okay with having painful scraped up knees because of the roller skating down the hill, or whether we’d do things differently next time.
I’m not trying to say that some of the safety measures we have today aren’t good things. Generally, wearing a helmet while biking probably makes sense, and doesn’t take away from the overall experience. And I’m also not trying to say that bullying isn’t a real problem. It certainly is. And now we have cyber bullying, which is even more insidious.
I do wonder though, if what seems to be a bullying epidemic isn’t, at least in some part, due to the fact that kids no longer have anything else to do. And if kids standing around watching and filming other kids getting beaten up, rather than stepping in and trying to stop things, isn’t because kids no longer have any experience with figuring out how to control situations that get out of hand.
And this childhood obesity epidemic — could that have anything to do with the way we’ve curbed our kids natural inclination toward fun activities? And now apparently we’re trying to crack down on that obesity problem by throwing even more rules at kids — a 6 year old in the UK was apparently suspended for 4 days for having a package of mini cheddars in his lunch. I seriously hope this is a joke. I know in my own kids school, they are certainly not allowed peanut butter, but they are also not allowed to bring in treats of any kind to share with the whole class. That’s due to allergy problems — fair enough. They are also no longer allowed to have events like bake sales or cake walks because they don’t promote healthy living. A friend of mine teaches high school. He said the cafeteria revenues are down significantly since they no longer offer anything that kids want to eat, in response to “healthy living” initiatives. We had bake sales every week when I was a kid. The cafeteria served fries with SALT (gasp) and various mystery meats and unidentifiable sweet stuff. And yet way fewer kids were overweight. How is this possible?
Kids have very little control over their lives. Why can’t we just leave them alone about their food and activity? Yes, of course, educate them about healthy eating and exercise. Offer them healthy choices and then leave them alone to sort out what they’re going to do at recess and what they’re going to put in their mouths? Whole generations of people grew up just fine eating peanut butter sandwiches and having snowball fights.
And check out this article about a New Zealand school who has said to hell with the playground rules with some really great results. Watch the video. Best quote ever: “adults are best to go inside and sit down with a glass of wine and let the children play.” A philosophy I embrace to the fullest.
And because I’m a 12 year old at heart, I have to tell you how difficult it was for me to get through writing a whole post using the words “balls”, “bag” and “pole” repeatedly. I’ve been snickering in my head the whole time.