AS school administrators wrestle with the deeply controversial issues of educating America's youth -- evolution versus creationism, metal detectors on campus, standardized testing -- one topic has really put them in the public hot seat: the schoolyard game of tag.
The issue made national headlines recently when Willett Elementary School in Attleboro, Mass., officially banned the venerable skinner of knees, inspiring considerable derision in editorials and online discussion boards. (Schools in South Carolina, Wyoming and Washington have instituted similar bans.)
The topic is so no-win that school officials, admittedly busy with loftier issues, are reluctant to discuss it.
But the reality is that schools across the United States have been quietly discouraging tag for years. Any discussion of it elicits a flinch response because this simple schoolyard game is at the nexus of three competing interests: giving kids freedom to play (what many teachers and kids want), keeping them safe from harm on large, unruly playgrounds (what concerned parents want) and avoiding band-aid-related depositions (what all administrators want).
Doug Slonkosky, principal of Van Buren Elementary school in Placentia, is a brave man. He was willing to go on the record that Van Buren discourages tag.
At big schools like Van Buren, which has 720 students, having masses of kids careening off each other as if they were errant billiard balls presents a genuine problem. Kids playing tag interfere with organized physical education classes, he says, and the games sometimes degenerate into kids running up and poking or hitting other students.
"Instead," Slonkosky says, "we incorporate the principles of tag into chasing games, such as touch football."
Although the Los Angeles Unified School District doesn't ban tag, many individual schools, which are free to adopt their own policy based on the needs of the school, have chosen to limit it. For example, in LAUSD's Local District 4, which covers nearly 100,000 students in the downtown basin, tag isn't banned but it's discouraged, says Richard Alonzo, the district superintendent. The reasons, he adds, are purely practical.
The game can bring out aggression in some kids and lead to confrontation. Today's campuses are often paved with blacktop, not cushioned with grass; and schools have had to cut back on supervisory aides because of funding problems.
"Why would we want to encourage a game that may lead to more injuries and confrontation among students?" Alonzo says.
Despite recent furor, the restrictions on tag are not new, says Alonzo. As far back as the late 1980s, when he was a school principal, the school discouraged it, for much the same reasons.
Andrew Rakos, general manager of Fountain Day School in West Hollywood, with 175 students, believes the socializing benefits of tag outweigh the dangers of lawsuits, particularly at relatively small schools like his.
"Tag is about learning how to compete in a fair and laughing joyous way," says Rakos. "There's an element of being safe, of avoiding trouble, strategy. You learn about how to deal with disagreements and how to find solutions. And of course you learn about your personal space and about speed and control of your body."
Charlene Burgeson, executive director of the National Assn. for Sport and Physical Education, thinks the real value of tag is much simpler.
A game like tag keeps children moderately to vigorously active, says Burgeson, at a time when kids are putting in more TV-viewing time than ever.
But tag proponents should take heart. Tag is a uniquely elemental game that develops naturally -- and kids seem to be hard-wired to play it. At age 4 or 5, children are running around chasing each other, and by the first grade, they've created the rules and organized themselves into a game. "It's one of the few games left where the adults have absolutely nothing to do with it," says psychologist Fred Frankel, director of the UCLA Parent Training and Children's Friendship Programs. "Kids transmit it from generation to generation and spontaneously organize it."