Anna Beresin is one of those lucky souls whose work is play - in more ways than one.
She so enjoys teaching at the University of the Arts, where she's an associate professor of liberal arts, that, for the most part, it doesn't seem like work at all. At the same time, the subject of her research as a social scientist is play itself. She is steeped in play theory, studies play, and uses play as a pedagogic tool. In many of her classes, she involves students - painters and dancers alike - in games and movement.
"We're wired for play," Beresin states. "It functions in a profound way in childhood development and is essential to happiness for both children and grown-ups."
The focus of her recent research is schoolyard play and the importance of recess. In her just-published book, Recess Battles, Beresin documents the meaning of play based on closely observing recess at an unidentified Philadelphia elementary school at various times between 1991 and 2004.
The title of the book refers to several battles: the ones kids fight during recess against imaginary monsters and demons; the battle with the education establishment over whether recess is a legitimate activity; and the battle against the adult misperception that recess is an unruly waste of time.
Beresin, 49, believes passionately in the value of recess.
"The students not only can run free outside but also are allowed to speak and move in a manner that does not require adult approval," she writes in her book. "Outside, stories and games emerge, providing a detailed and absurd cultural commentary."
Beresin is dismayed by the fact that 40 percent of American schools have eliminated or curtailed mid-morning recess, sometimes combining it with lunch. "In upper-middle-class schools, recess is removed because of enrichment and testing," Beresin says. "In working-class schools, it's removed because of chaos and violence."
Or the perception of such by teachers and principals who are unaware of what's really happening, and the value of the playing, fighting, and storytelling that erupt during these precious 15 minutes of spontaneous, unscripted time.
"The schoolyard validates the importance of play but also the misperception many grown-ups have that play is trivial," Beresin says. A false dichotomy exists between play and learning. In fact, play is essential for children, physically, socially, and culturally.
"When children do not play," Beresin warns, "it's a sign of illness."
Or, as folklorist Brian Sutton-Smith, Beresin's academic mentor at the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned two Ph.D.'s, says: "The opposite of play is not work. It's depression."
The main theme of the songs, stories, and dramas of the schoolyard, Beresin says, is the body. Growing, changing, mysterious, the body is both subject and instrument of childhood self-expression. Beresin calls it "a multimedia form of performance art."
"The schoolyard is a seed yard for all of the arts - singing, acting, dancing, and if the kids are lucky, drawing with chalk," Beresin says. "The young of the species are all naturally playful, and all kids are artists, until it's schooled out of them."
The body wants to move, and recess gives kids the opportunity and permission to do so in ways not possible in gym class.
"Gym is not recess," Beresin declares flatly. The structured games and drills of gym class may exercise the body but do nothing to spur improvisation and imagination. As one child told Beresin: "Outside we can just run free."
Warns Beresin in her book: "Children who do not have the freedom to move incur costs - depression, aggression, apathy."
The reduction in recess is surely a factor in the epidemic of childhood obesity and ADHD. "What do we do with restless kids? We medicate," Beresin laments. "If a kid is wiggly, having him sit inside for seven or eight hours is not going to help. We keep filling children's minds with information all day, and then we wonder why they have outbursts."
A surefire way to get kids moving: "Let them out in the schoolyard with a couple of hoops and buckets of balls and ropes."
She's working to do just that through a project called Recess Access. Last spring, she asked her students to survey the city's elementary schoolyards. The dismal news: 50 percent are inadequate (cracked pavement, no supplies or equipment, play space occupied by parked cars, etc.).
With a grant from UArts, eight schools were chosen to receive balls, jump ropes, and basketball goals.
"The reaction was fantastic," Beresin says, "like opening a spigot in the desert."
One teacher told Beresin she had never seen the children at her school so happy.
Beresin hopes to expand the program and to attract sponsors willing to donate the $300 to $400 to outfit a school for play.
"All it takes is time, props, and recess," Beresin says. "Happy kids are moving their bodies, going bonkers jumping rope."