In the 1950s, when I went to elementary school at Coggin Ward in Brownwood, Texas, we had two recesses, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The op-ed article from the New York Times today (see link below) decries the lack of playtime in childhood and the problems encountered at recess — bullying, arguing, intimidation — so much so, that recess coaches have been appointed for troubled schools and playgrounds. “For children in past eras, participating in the culture of childhood was a socializing process. They learned to settle their own quarrels, to make and break their own rules, and to respect the rights of others. They learned that friends could be mean as well as kind, and that life was not always fair”, so writes David Elkind.
I loved recess at Coggin! Not so much to escape academics because I loved most of my classes, but I engaged recess like a high form of testing my strength against my weaknesses — running, jumping, kicking soccer balls, escaping from tag, hitting the baseball, even playing mumblepeg on school grounds (pocketknife game, we all carried them).
I used a 620 Kodak camera to take these pictures of us playing baseball in ca. March 1955, at Coggin Ward school. (Mother used the Kodak to capture pictures of Camp Bowie and my father in the 1940s.) Dale Smith was a good friend of mine and quite talented in athletics.
These photographs show no recess coaches. I think there were a couple of teachers observing from the building, but they were never interventionists in our play and gaming unless a major squabble broke out (I don’t remember any). We chose sides to play baseball. There was some organization every now and then — calesthentics were occasionally forced upon us. In the choosing of sides, athletic ability carried the most importance, then popularity. Even the poorest-talented boy would be chosen to play for there was no sulking allowed we ordered. I learned that life was not always fair and good, but most of the time the shame and failure could be overcome by coming up to bat again, having another chance for a hit to drive in Henley from second base. There was always another chance at the plate, and, even then, there was tomorrow’s recess to score a point to win the game.
Television, computer games and other devices have robbed children and adolescents of time outside in the sun and wind and rain. Look at the trees in the photographs. It’s late winter, early spring and the leaves are not even out on the trees. I can tell you that we would play at recess as long as the dust did not obscure second base from homeplate. We learned to play and adapt to each other. Oh, these were “social skill sets” that we carried into life beyond Coggin, beyond Brownwood High School. It may be strange for us of the 1940s and 1950s to visualize a recess coach on the playground, but if that is needed to get boys and girls, young men and women, out of boxes called classrooms and houses, then so be it. I think I’ll apply to be a recess coach in my retirement. I’d rather be on the playground than behind a lectern on any sunny day of the year.
Choose sides, boys! I want Dale, Joe and Jimmy on my side. Carol will lead the cheers. It won’t turn out that way, but that’s life, a lesson I learned at recess.
Op-Ed Contributor – At Schools, Playtime Is Over – NYTimes.com. This is the link to the New York Times article explaining the socialization problems of modern youth.