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East Grand Forks School District implements structured play for recess

Fifth-graders at South Point Elementary in East Grand Forks play an organized flying disc game Wednesday during recess. (John Stennes/Grand Forks Herald)

EAST GRAND FORKS - The scene Wednesday afternoon at East Grand Forks South Point Elementary was rowdy, loud and boisterous - in many ways, the same recess has always been at elementary schools.

But a closer look at the playground showed a different scene: kids participating together, politely taking turns and playing games that might seem unusually structured for something as chaotic as recess.

That's because the school modified recess about a month ago, a move that Principal Suraya Driscoll said was to teach kids lessons while still having fun.

Things were getting a little too rowdy on the playground, Driscoll said. At this time last year, there were 52 referrals to the principal's office just from recess incidents.

"We just didn't like what we were seeing, and it was the same kids engaged in the same things and the same kids getting hurt," she said. "It was time for something different."

Driscoll did research on what the school could do, and found the book "6-Steps to a Trouble-free Playground." The book's plan, with the principles of responsibility, intrinsic motivation and inclusion, seemed like a good starting point.

Faculty members started slowly, and began implementing the plan at the end of September. This newer take on recess puts the focus of behavior on the students themselves - each day, the kids self-evaluate if they were acceptable, unacceptable or outstanding.

That teaches problem-solving and has a better effect on their behavior, Driscoll said. "Kids prefer that to being punished and threatened. It comes from within, and they figure it out."

The plan has worked because staff members, School District officials and parents have embraced the positive impact of the changes. Referrals to the principal's office show just how much has changed - only four students have been sent to Driscoll for misbehaving on the playground this year.

"The No. 1 thing, too, was changing recess from a free-for-all to a place that's fun and enjoyable," she said.

Student choice

It might seem strange to take the chaotic idea of recess and make it into a structured activity, but Driscoll said parents have handled the change well when they realized their kids would still have options.

The book's plan features a variety of games, and some new versions of familiar playground games such as kickball. Teachers picked 17 games to get started, and students can choose what they want to play.

The kids are encouraged to switch it up and play different games each day. "There's a lot of freedom and a lot of choices," Driscoll said. "It's just they have to make a choice."

Fifth-graders who were asked if they like the new method let out an enthusiastic "Yeah!"

Alexis Gordon said the changes have even made recess a safer time. "We used to play this bumper game on the slide, and everybody would just get tackled," she said. "Since I'm so little, I would end up on the bottom, and I would get hurt."

Driscoll was quick to point out today's students aren't any worse or better during recess than in the past. "I think we've always been aware of the playground being an issue," she said. "It's just making the change happen that's critical."

Leaving large groups of kids alone during an unstructured recess is "setting them up to fail," she said, because they need choices. "I'm not saying they're going to be 100 percent every time, but there's a higher ratio for success if they're given choices."

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