Saturday, August 20, 2016

"That's the way we've always done it"

For the past three school years, our recess fields have been limited due to our construction project. At the end of last school year, we began to seek input from students and staff about how we might restructure recess and our playgrounds. We were in the process of exploring Project-Based Learning, and we posed a question to our students about what they would like to see in a playground. Students from kindergarten up to fifth grade were excited to share ideas in their classroom or in the library, and our librarian (@Michelle_Colte) shared the process in a slide show called, "Planning Our Playground."

We also asked our staff for their input during a Wednesday meeting. We gave them the topic "Recess for Learning," asked the groups to brainstorm questions, select the ones they wanted to explore more, and then to share their learnings. Every staff member was engaged in their group, and the resulting slide show is evidence of the rich discussions that took place. Not surprisingly, the ideas were more practical and less "creative" than our students' ideas. What was impressive was that in the short time available, teams were able to explore and research their questions and provide links to resources.

After that session with our staff,  a committee of students presented their ideas to administration and counselors. These third graders were passionate and had clearly done their research in an effort to persuade us to consider their ideas. This slide show shares the students' ideas. In the end, they advocated for 4 main changes: a longer recess (they had research to back up their claim that students need more physical activity during the day); to be able to go to other places at recess (different playground areas, going to the library, the drama room, etc.); permission for all grade level students to use the playground equipment (older students felt the rules were too restrictive); and having a landscaped area and do-it-yourself space (rolling hills, gardens, sandboxes, a maze, etc.).Students were also concerned about the fact that teachers seemed to ban activities whenever there was a problem rather than seek student input about how to resolve the problem. "Students were playing rough at soccer so they ban soccer. Students fell down and got hurt during tag so they ban tag. There's  nothing for us to do at recess because teachers keep banning stuff." "So what do you propose?" we asked. "Maybe kids can discuss in class about the rules. Or make the kids who are playing rough find something else to do." The point here is that our students do have suggestions; not all of their ideas are acceptable - we made it clear that climbing trees would not be possible due to safety reasons - but we should give them a voice because recess is their break and they have great ideas.

"So what would teachers think of these ideas?" we asked the students. "Oh, they'll like our ideas," one student replied. "They will think it's important for students to get more exercise." "Will they like having longer recess duty?" I asked. One student thought they wouldn't mind, but another disagreed. "I've heard my teacher when she says, 'I have yard duty.' I don't think she would like it," she explained.  'Empathize' is the first step in the Design Thinking Process, we need to be able to empathize with those who have the problem before we can come up with solutions. Our students need to realize that when they give a suggestion, they need to look at it from all viewpoints, not just their own.

After that, our Leadership Team had an on-line discussion where more questions were asked and more suggestions were made. From there, administrators took all of this information into consideration and came up with a revised plan for recess for this school year. Students were given more choice in which field they wanted to play at, we scheduled a slightly longer recess on Wednesday, and we had mixed grade levels sharing the recess fields. Everything went well, right? Wrong!

The students were happy; they loved recess, and they only had 3 rules to remember: Be safe. Be respectful. Be responsible. The teachers' reactions were mixed, however. Some teachers were willing to give it a chance to work itself out, but others were not convinced the new way could work. They wanted to go back to the old way: "That's the way we've always done it," they said, "Why do we have to change?" After a couple of weeks, we convened a committee to discuss and make recommendations.

We are back to having badges for students to go on the playground equipment. The physical education teachers set out activities each day, and teachers are meeting their students and walking them back to class instead of having them walk back by themselves. I think of this as a next step in the Design Process. We went through the process, designed a prototype (recess for learning where students have more voice and choice), and tested it out. When concerns were raised especially about safety, we went back to the design process and made adjustments. We aren't finished yet; we still want to make recess more student-centric and less teacher-directed, but we need the activities and equipment to make that happen. The Parent Teacher Organization has offered to purchase additional activities for our students to use during recess, teachers are looking in their closets to see if they have resources they can share, and we will continue to tweak what we're doing when necessary.

Recess can be a time for learning; we will make it happen.

Recess on the back field . . .
 . . . . in the front of the school by O-building . . . 
. . . and on the court. 
When the playground refurbishment is completed, we'll have more options for our students.  

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