Kickball and dodgeball are out. “Hoop Ball” and “Guard the Cookie Jar” are in.
Many traditional recess games are “just not appropriate anymore,” says Curt Hinson, who calls himself “Dr. Recess.” He visited McKinley Elementary in the Abington School District on Thursday to teach today’s screen-saturated kids to do something adults may remember coming fairly naturally: How to play games.
But not just any games. Hinson, a Delaware native who takes his recess-consulting services to schools across the country, says the games of recesses past aren’t the best fit for most students. “People think there’s nothing wrong with games, but there’s a lot of wrong with games,” he said.
Take kickball, for instance: The more skilled kids dominate, Hinson says, leaving others hanging out or wandering off. Sometimes, it can take forever for a game of 20 or more kids to even start.
To Hinson, that’s a missed opportunity — both for exercise, which research has linked to brain development, and for the social and emotional skills and lessons children pick up from playing.
“Children spend more time indoors, on their screens, and they don’t get outside to play quite as much,” he said. “Their life is run by adults very early.”
A former physical education teacher with a doctorate in kinesiology, Hinson has been running recess training for 21 years through his Delaware-based company, PlayFit Education. He isn’t alone in bringing a new philosophy to recess. Groups like Playworks, a national nonprofit, are also providing recess services to schools, seeking to create more inclusive environments for students.
“We wouldn’t put a literacy instructor in a classroom without proper training,” said Ivy Olesh, executive director of the Pennsylvania branch of Playworks, which has coaches in nine Philadelphia schools and provides training one week a month to 18 others in the city. “We don’t want to stick folks into the recess yard with 75, 100 kids sometimes, without thinking about what kind of competencies do we want them to build to make that time successful?”
Schools — like McKinley, which has brought Hinson in twice, and Overlook Elementary, also in the Abington district, which hosted him this month — say they want to improve recess for kids who may have only a few games in their roster. They also see it as a way to create a stronger school culture.
“Anything we can do to enhance what we’re already doing, it’s a benefit to the kids,” said Marie Kim, the principal at McKinley, where the parent-teacher organization has sponsored Hinson’s $995-a-day visits. Thursday’s visit was timed to coincide with “Start With Hello” Week, an initiative of the Sandy Hook Promise group to raise awareness about social isolation.
Kim said no parents had questioned the need for the program. While McKinley already hosted Hinson last year, she said, the school wanted to reacquaint students with the games. And “we liked his energy,” she said.
Sporting a “Dr. Recess” T-shirt, Hinson blew a whistle and spoke into a microphone attached to a headset as students in fourth, fifth, and sixth grades filled the perimeter of the McKinley gymnasium Thursday to get a preview of the games that would be laid out that day at recess.
He began by telling the students they had two jobs: learn the rules, then play by the rules.
“Raise your hand if you want to be a helper,” Hinson said as hands shot up across the gym.
He then demonstrated a series of games, starting with “hoop ball,” reminiscent of four square, but with just two players bouncing a ball back and forth into a hula hoop on the ground.
Other games also seemed similar to existing versions. Students played keep-away, standing in a circle and tossing a ball to each other, while another student in the middle tried to grab it.
A third game, “drop catch,” involved one student dropping an unusually shaped, unpredictably bouncy ball in a circle as a second student tried to catch it. Another game required students stationed at two cans to try to knock in Frisbees tossed by a teammate.
“Instead of adding more people to your game, add more games,” Hinson told students as he demonstrated a modified form of handball, suggesting no more than five on each side.
Several students said the games helped them meet new people and gave them options — instead of “just doing one thing over and over and over,” said sixth grader Kevin Kelly, 11.
They have certain routines: Kevin often plays football, basketball, or soccer; classmate Selina Wu, also 11, tends to walk around with friends and help teachers. Fifth grader Giana Jones, 10, said “a lot of times,” she’ll wait for the swings.
“Sometimes when kids just do one thing, they do another thing that’s kind of boring,” said Kevin, describing “kid life.” While he approved of Hinson’s games, he still planned to play football at recess Thursday with other sixth grade boys.
Out on the blacktop, younger students with earlier recesses were already trying out the games, which they took up on their own. “I’m just waiting for someone to come over,” said one boy, standing in a circle with a ball. To a nearby girl, he asked, “Are you playing with anyone?”