The puzzle of recess

My understanding of “orthodox” Montessori is that children should a) be working on things they are excited about and having fun with and b) ideally be able to take a stretch/run around/rest break whenever needed. This has always made me wonder why children need to have a designated recess time during which they are allowed to run and to play. I’ve never heard of a school that did away with formal recess time completely. Part of this is the result of the fact that most Montessori schools aren’t perfectly ideal environments built in such a way that the children can go outside whenever they wish. I’m sure part of it is due to legalities (we’re required by law to have organized recess time here), part of it is due to custom and parental expectation, and part of it is due to the fact that recess is often when teachers get their breaks. Even when children don’t get to go outside because of bad weather or something, it seems there is almost inevitably an “indoor recess” where the children are allowed to play games, be a little louder, and generally “not work.”

I bring this up because I made some interesting observations today. It was pouring and I’m not feeling well, so we decided it was best to have indoor recess today. We let the kids get legos, k’nex, board games, plastic dinosaur models, etc. from the after school care room and just let them have at it. Yes, it was a bit loud and a bit of a mess (next time, we will work on cleaning up before going on to the next thing, just like the children are expected to do the rest of the day), but here’s the interesting part: I saw more concentration in that room during that recess than I’ve seen all year. Yes, they were building with legos and playing Monopoly, but they were doing it intensely. After my partner in crime took a few students off for a Going Out, I just couldn’t bring myself to put an end to recess. It was so much easier to observe and let them keep doing what they were doing than to try to push them all to do “real” work (and I just didn’t have the energy for the fight), and anyway, I was curious and we had French so I wasn’t planning to give any lessons anyway.

After about an hour of legos and whatnot, a few students started choosing other work. Two sat down and started writing, a few more started making Zentangles (and giving each other lessons on how to make them), some others practiced calligraphy, and a few more found some stencils in the after school care room and decided to use them to make felt pillows. I had a few kids who I knew would be pretty restless by mid-afternoon since they had no chance to run around, so I wrote a note to one of them that said something like “go into the hall, do ten jumping jacks then hop down the hall and back on one foot.” I spent the rest of the afternoon writing command cards for various children, which eventually involved things like “pick up all the k’nex on the floor using tongs” (they had a lot of fun with that one, though the floor didn’t get clean), and “do a chequerboard problem, stopping after each row and walking down the hall and back with a plastic dinosaur balanced on your head.” One command got out of hand (they did not come up with the interpretation I expected them to) and there were a few out-of-control children, but it didn’t seem any worse than normal (if a bit louder). It did take us half an hour to clean up (something we’re going to work on next time), but on the whole, it was a seriously fun afternoon.

So all this made me wonder: should my classroom be more like this more of the time? Dr. Montessori wrote about putting toys in her first Casa. She eventually took them out because she noticed the children were more interested in other materials in the environment, not because she thought playing with toys was a waste of time. I don’t think she ever did the same thing in an elementary classroom (she didn’t move on to elementary children until many of her ideas about education were already formed), but I have to wonder if I’m unfairly expecting the kids to gravitate towards the “real” work without ever giving them the opportunity to saturate themselves with “playing” (and that implies that drawing, building with legos, and playing Monopoly are a waste of time, which doesn’t seem likely). In my training, I was taught that the single most important measure of success in the classroom is that children are concentrating. By that measure, this was the most productive and learning-filled afternoon they’ve had all year.

I’m not sure I’ll want to or be able to continue running my classroom this way, but I’m going to remember this afternoon. If nothing else, I think it’s the first time I did what I was really taught to do. Since it was recess, I had no agenda beyond safety and a reasonable noise level, so I observed first and then decided where to give input.


2 thoughts on “The puzzle of recess

  1. Karen says:

    I hope many will comment on this, as I found it truly interesting. I`m a newbe to Montessori, and must agree that I sometimes feel that it is a bit too strickt and that kids are missing out on the play that you describe above. If the situation you are talking about are actually how M. Montessori wanted her school to be, I would like and embrace the method even more. I believe kids should be allowed to be kids for longer then what I feel is the case in some Montessori class rooms.

  2. I’ve just found this blog and love it 🙂

    Yes, this is how Montessori schools are *supposed* to be. Children want real work; but real work can happen with bulding tools (legos, knex) and game playing. When it is a portion of the classroom experience (not the whole thing), then it is entirely in balance. So we give them reasonable opportunity, balancing freedom and responsibility. They know what they are supposed to accomplishing each day or week; so they take breaks when needed and get back to work when refreshed.

    I love the games you played with the children with going up and down the hall – I do these sort of things with my co-op children and they just eat it up – don’t even know they are learning to read in cursive (my main point) while they’re at it 🙂

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