No tag at school? Why kids need physical play

Experts recommend not only outside activity, but physical games for children.
Experts recommend not only outside activity, but physical games for children.

No roughhousing. No superhero games. No turning your fingers – or your Pop-Tart– into a make-believe gun. No tag. And certainly no dodgeball.

Stories of zero-tolerance play-policing by schools are a well-established news genre. Most recently, parents in Washington state mounted a successful campaign to force the Mercer Island School District to reverse its ban on playing tag during “unstructured playtime,” or what used to be called recess. In his backpedaling press release, district superintendent Gary Plano puzzlingly insisted that “asking students to keep their hands and feet to themselves at all times, including recess” wasn’t a ban on tag. Perhaps he envisions tag by telepathy.

At any rate, Mercer Island isn’t the first school district to prohibit tag and it won’t be the last. Bans on physical contact and pretend violence are the norm on U.S. school playgrounds.

Behind these policies is the belief that vigorous physical contact and make-believe violence will beget immediate and future real physical harms – magical thinking that misunderstands how children play and learn. Prohibiting rough-and-tumble play doesn’t make recess safer or kids less apt to hurt others. To the contrary, the bans deprive children of the very experiences they need to master peaceful social interactions.

Roughhousing is more than good exercise. Psychological research shows that it’s essential to childhood development. Rowdy, physical play teaches kids to communicate verbally and nonverbally; to take turns; to negotiate rules; and to understand when they can use their full strength and when they need to hold back. It may sometimes look like fighting but it isn’t. Kids smile and laugh, return voluntarily to the game, take turns in dominant roles, and wear distinctive “play faces.”

“To simply forbid it is like telling children, ‘We’re not going to let you eat today, because the food might be contaminated,' “ says Frances Carlson, author of Big Body Play, a guide published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “Children can’t live without it, so they do it in hiding.” Over the past three decades, as the research into its importance has mounted, the NAEYC has gone from hostile to supportive of full-body play. Unfortunately, laws and schools haven’t kept up, hurting kids’ development.

Contrary to what squeamish authorities seem to think, it’s the kids who don’t engage in rough-and-tumble play who actually tend to be more violent later on in life. So, says Carlson, forbidding playful physical contact “stokes the fire as opposed to diminishing it.”

Good teachers will coach rather than punish kids who play rough. That may sometimes mean physically standing in for playmates to show a child when a tag is too hard.

Educating teachers doesn’t do any good, of course, if they can’t use what they learn. The zero-tolerance approach not only hampers children’s education. It treats teachers not as educational professionals but as passive bystanders unable – or forbidden – to make judgment calls, even in ridiculous cases.

Take what happened to Drew Johnson, now a high school freshman, when he was a child at Cumberland Elementary School in Fishers, Indiana. One fall recess he bent over and picked some dandelions. For that offense, he served several days of lunchtime detention. When his shocked parents asked the principal what Johnson did wrong, she explained that some kids had been throwing rocks at recess. To make things easy on recess monitors, the school had simply banned picking anything up from the ground – flowers included.