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Hopscotch? Well, Maybe ...

November 28, 2004

Now that the nation's schools have perfected the instruction of math, English, history, social studies and all the sciences and have taught all youngsters the manners and health rules they may have missed at home, it seems that reformers are headed out to the playground for some creative banishing. There, they are taking aim at a number of unacceptably rough games that might brutalize tender egos.

Schools in such states as California, Maryland and Texas are finally banning outrageously brutal games like tag, dodge ball and any activity involving physical contact. About time, eh? Footballs may be tossed, but running, tackling and blocking are out. Pulling and pushing? Gone too. No more crack-the-whip. On a swing? Create your own momentum. No pushing allowed there, either.

This kind of thing makes many adults glad they grew up when play hadn't yet been outlawed.

True, all generations experience playground unpleasantness. Someone always gets picked last. Teasing can hurt. It was embarrassing to catch a dodge ball in the butt too early in a game. Yet getting eliminated in a meaningless game was a lesson that conceivably could help sometime during later life. Other play lessons: You don't always get what you want; life isn't always fair; it takes all kinds; sportsmanship matters.

Originally, school recess and lunch-hour playtimes were designed for youngsters to stampede outdoors and be creatively active physically, to relieve the stress of long division and coloring within the lines. One or two adult monitors policed the place -- and bullies -- with vigilant eyes and stern whistles.

As children do when left alone, they invented their own games and rules, forged teams, alliances, friendships and tactics and even resolved conflicts. They learned cooperation, how to be gracious winners (cheering briefly is OK, taunting the losers isn't) and, more important, how to lose gracefully. If someone played too roughly too often, justice might be administered next time out.

Now, free play is giving way to activities like relay races organized by adults to avoid hurt feelings or singed self-esteems. Everyone is included. Everyone gets praised. Just as in life. Not! This also helps address the perceived threat of costly lawsuits hanging over schools like thunderclouds.

Schools are under tremendous pressure today to teach even nonacademic lessons like honesty, consideration and responsibility, things once taught in homes. It's a challenge, especially if parents are inattentive or unsupportive. Whether prohibiting cops-and-robbers and tag is a valid lesson plan seems dubious, given the more important teaching left unfinished. Where's that stern whistle when you need it?

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