Play Right

Marni Pyke
The Northwest Herald

Peaceful playgrounds markingsA year ago, controlled bedlam reigned in the South Elementary School playground in Crystal Lake during recess.

Children played a chaotic version of soccer that led to brawls and name calling. Those intimidated by the rough games wandered around the playground aimlessly at recess. Teachers wasted time dealing with the heated emotions from recess battles still rankling after the bell rang.

Peaceful Playgrounds Recess Program

All that changed at the start of this school year.

That’s when the Peaceful Playground program came to town.

It used to be boring,” said fifth-grader Amy Wruck. “We always played on the soccer field. Now the games are always changing and we never do the same thing.”

“The difference is phenomenal. It’s like a miracle happened,” said Principal Mary Katzler.

The “miracle” involves a painted map of the United States, brightly colored circles and several rectangles – all of which are painted on the black top.

California teacher Melinda Bossenmeyer designed the Peaceful Playgrounds program to offer children structured games that limit physical contact and are not competitive.

Two District 47 elementary schools, South and Coventry, have turned their school yards into Peaceful Playgrounds. The program delivers all the name promises, said South assistant principal Glen Gabel.

“There had been a lot of very physical play taking place on the soccer fields with the older kids. The soccer was turning into rugby, the kids couldn’t resist the urge to pick up the ball and run,” Gabel said.

Because the games are more evenly spaced around the schoolyard, so are the children. Thus, there are fewer opportunities for bumps and bruises.

“There were 13 (serious) playground injuries last school year,” Gabel said. “There were none this year. Only two children were sent to the principal’s office this year.”

That success is typical, said Bossenmeyer, a former physical education teacher with a doctorate in educational leadership.

“We found an 83 percent decrease in major injuries, that require a visit to the hospital,” she said. “It allows children to be active, to engage in game play, rather than walking around or chasing each other.”

It also comes down to the old adage, “an idle mind is the devil’s playground,” Gabel said. “If a child wanders the playground with nothing to do, that’s when they can get into trouble. Peaceful Playgrounds has given them more to do, and given them more structured things to do.”

And rather than allowing rules to be improvised, South physical education teacher Scott McDowell instructs pupils and staff how to play each game correctly.

“We need to watch out in case they change the game in ways we don’t like,” said Gabel.

By far, the most popular game is “four square.” A square is divided into quarters, with one child standing in each square. The players toss a ball to each other, but try to keep it within the painted lines.

At age 8, George Jiruska is a playground veteran who welcomes this new type of recess.

“Peaceful Playgrounds are a nice place,” George said. “Now everyone wants to play here during recess. Before there was practically nothing, there was only soccer and people got hurt. Everyone was ripping shirts at recess.

“Now whenever people disagree on the playground, we use ‘paper, scissors, stone’ and whoever loses has to go to the end of the line.”

Teacher Jan Czosnyska was one of dozens of staff and parent volunteers who braved heat and paint fumes last summer to transform the South schoolyard. The hard work was more than worth it, she said,

“When they used to come off the playground after recess, there would be so many complaints, we’d have to play referee. We don’t do that anymore,” Czosnyska said. “The students are calmer and they seem more settled. The rules are set and the games are fun. They have a purpose and they like the recess games.”

Educators hope reduced confrontations on the playground will lead to reduced tension at recess AND in the classroom.

“In terms of violence prevention and bullying, there’s a conflict resolution component that teaches them to solve their problems in an appropriate way,” Bossenmeyer said.

In tandem with the Peaceful Playgrounds, South School has adopted a “bully-proofing” initiative.

“We started to hear about teasing going on – hitting, kicking and pushing,” said GabeL

Officials surveyed students, staff and parents, and developed strategies to reduce the problem.

“Bullies sometimes pick on children because they never speak up for themselves,” Gabel said. “We teach children to assert themselves and use humor to defuse the situation. We encourage them to intervene when they see other children being bullied.”

Eleven-year old Amy Wruck and her mother, Pam, a playground supervisor, both gave the bully-proofing effort high marks.

Because of the program, kids are aware they should not call each other names and the consequences of it. Now it’s been brought to their attention, they know how they’re supposed to act,” Pam Wruck said. “When their feelings are hurt, they’re the first to let us know.”

“We know different ways of dealing with bullies, like saying, “That’s not true,” said Amy. “Sometimes people would joke and you’d take it the wrong way. Last year if I got into an argument with my friend, we might not talk for two days. Now it’s easier to talk about it.”

Related Resources

The Recess Advocacy Toolkit includes: parent letters, a power point presentation, a meeting agenda, and advocacy guide for Saving School Recess.  It can be download here :