Final Thought column

Tag, You’re It!

When I was seven, I tripped while running on a school playground, skinning my knee. It was my left knee. I know because, at the time, I was unsure of left and right but I was told – and therefore knew – that it was my left knee that was injured.

The scab didn’t fully heal for three or four weeks. During that time, whenever I needed to know left from right, I looked down at my damaged knee and remembered that it was the left one. Before long, I had learned my left and my right and no longer needed the injured spot to verify it. One well-skinned knee had advanced my education considerably.

No More Skinned Knees

I was reminded of this when I read about two schools in Massachusetts that were banning tag at recess because children might fall and hurt themselves and then sue the district. At one, the principal was quoted as saying“if the hands come out to touch, the supervisors ask them to stop. What we require is that children do not touch each other.”

The article I read, from Yahoo, noted that another principal had banned tag“out of fear that accidents could happen.”

Sometimes, I despair for the little children put in our care. No Child Left Behind has turned kindergarten from an introductory experience where children learn how to interact with one another, play nicely, and listen when the teacher speaks, to a high pressure “learn to read and write and do arithmetic or you’ll be a failure” experience. Now adults, afraid that children might fall and hurt themselves, are making rules to keep children from acting like children and having fun — even during recess.

If it were just a couple of schools, I wouldn’t care. But, apparently, it’s a national movement. According to Yahoo, elementary schools in Wyoming and Washington have banned tag at recess, “fearing the possible injuries could leave the schools legally liable.” In Broward County, FL, the rule says, “no running on the playground.”

A Portland, OR, station reports that safety experts have convinced the city’s schools to remove all swings from elementary school playgrounds along with “merry go rounds, tube slides, track rides, arch climbers, and teeter totters.”

What is a child to do at recess? Stand still far enough away from the next child that they can’t touch?

Provide Safe Equipment and Supervision

I am all for child safety, but the response to possible lawsuits should be doing a better job of creating safe conditions on playgrounds, not making kids stand still. Start with the equipment.

My childhood playground had swings with metal seats, wooden seesaws, high metal slides, and hard rough gravel on the ground. Good modern playground equipment is designed with safety in mind with rounded edges, soft surfaces, and relatively soft landing surfaces. The jungle gym has been replaced with climbing structures that allow children to move at their own pace; go down easy slides; cross over swinging bridges; and, in many ways, test their strengths, skills, and willingness to take chances. To avoid lawsuits, check playground equipment and make sure it meets modern standards. If it doesn’t, replace it.

Proper supervision is the second step to avoid lawsuits. Teachers or aides should be watching what is going on, not huddling in a corner. They have an adult role to play, ensuring that all children get a fair chance, calming hyperactive kids, encouraging those who stand around to participate, and stopping unacceptable activities including fighting and pushing.

Teaching proper playground behavior should start early. Children need to know that tagging is not pushing, and to look out where they’re going so they don’t knock into something or someone. That used to be taught in kindergarten, but perhaps there isn’t time for that anymore.

Even with it all — equipment, supervision and training — accidents will happen. Cuts, bruises, and even a few broken bones will occur on school playgrounds. They are, in some ways, rites of passage. Children can’t be put in cotton batting and expected to stand still and avoid all risks. Instead, school authorities have to do the best they can to provide a safe, supervised environment and then let the kids be kids.

Yes, some litigious parents might sue, but is that a reason to limit or eliminate the legitimate fun activities involved in being a child? Banning tag and other children’s activities is not a proper educational response to the problem of litigation.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."