OH, WHAT A LONG WAY we’ve come from TV’s “Ding Dong School,” with its always-cheerful host and teacher, Miss Frances. She promoted products to millions of kids–good stuff like Wheaties and Ovaltine; never cigarettes. That made it okay, right? In the 1950s watching Miss Frances on TV protected vulnerable children from the real corruptor of American youth… comic books.
More than half a century later we seem to be less naive about the virtues of TV, but only a little. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that in 2013 kids between the ages of 8 and 10 were spending as much as 8 hours a day glued to a screen of some sort, when you factor in time on smart phones and tablets as well as TV and video in all their various forms.
Parents still strain to find a time for other worthwhile activities for their kids, like exercise, eating a balanced diet, doing homework, sleeping at night and responding politely to adults who ask: How are you? And over that last couple of generations the same issues have spilled into our schools, where screen time competes for attention in the classroom and at recess. A recent debate in Hudson is just one example.
The Hudson City School District has a policy of not sending students at the John L. Edwards Primary School outside for recess if the temperature is below 21 degrees F. This might not have been an issue in an “average” winter. But the polar vortex has kept students inside for the last two months and the school is not set up for inside recreation at lunchtime, when older students or other programs are using the gym. So after 20 minutes set aside for lunch, the students watch a video program for the remaining 20 minutes of the period on days they can’t go outside.
Principal Steven Spicer says all the programs are now “PBS educational,” and he has pointed out both the benefit of introducing students to these educational materials, which they might otherwise not see, and explained why some alternatives to video, like board games, aren’t practical. There’s neither enough time nor ample staff.
He also reminded the school board that the parents complained when the district showed exercise video programs and students “began stepping on and hitting each other.”
Winter will end at some point (if it doesn’t we’ll have bigger problems than recess video). And when the kids can go outside again the immediate dilemma will fade in importance. But it won’t go away. This flare-up is only a symptom.
Hiring more aides to supervise lunch and recess, which it appears the administration is prepared to do, makes sense. It will give the district more flexibility in coping with too little space and with managing organized alternatives. That’s a good step but it can’t replace the free-time socialization that makes recess an essential component of public education.
The world has embraced a social experiment with new digital technology every bit as profound as earlier experiments that brought us mass literacy, broadcasting, the threat of nuclear annihilation and the luxury of fast food. But neither our DNA nor our society has had a chance to catch up. The students at John L. Edwards School who miss their recess and who come to rely on the screen as the preeminent source of social intelligence, will be at greater risk of obesity and other health problems and will face some higher chance of experiencing social isolation than their peers who get out of their seats and get moving every day, looking at, listening to, touching, tasting and smelling what’s all around them with no digital filter between their senses and the world.
We don’t need prohibitions to get kids excited about the non-virtual world. Good thing, too, because how many of us would willingly abandon our screens? We need commitment to making sure there’s a small part of every school day when kids, with adults watching but standing back, are allowed to organize themselves, program for themselves, stretch their bodies and their brains and make as much noise as their friends will tolerate.
Educators know, or should know, that school recess is a key part of the learning experience. The fact that no one has ever developed a successful way to measure and test its value speaks to its importance. You can’t replace it; you can’t delegate it to a screen. To educate a child you have to make recess happen every single school day.