Remaking Recess: Tearing Down Fences

Diana Pastora Carson, M.Ed.

“Once upon a time in a land not so far away, there lived a brother and a sister who loved each other very much. Each day, the sister went to school and learned many new things. But her brother was not allowed to go to school because he had a disability.  This saddened the girl very much. Until one day, a new law was passed that said that all little boys and girls could go to school, even if they had a disability. This made the girl very happy. 

A little yellow bus picked up her brother for his first day of school. At school, the little girl could hardly sit still until it was time for recess. She ran to her brother’s playground, eager to play with him. But when she got there, she was stopped by a big metal fence. The teacher stood on the other side of the fence with the girl’s brother and told her that she had to go to her own playground. The girl asked if her brother could come with her to her playground.  But that wasn’t allowed either.”  

This story is real.  It is part of my history. My brother’s history. Our nation’s history.  And although it seems so archaic, heartless, and unnecessary, it was the norm.  Way back then, even with the new law advocating for the “least restrictive environment” for all children, nobody thought twice about the appropriateness of segregation.  Even the best-trained professionals of the time were unaware of the long-lasting negative effects of segregating children and the long-lasting benefits of inclusion.

Nowadays, while many professionals and families have grown accustomed to inclusion in schools, and hence, on playgrounds, they still have little to no awareness about the importance of quality play and interactions, and how to foster them. Even with the best of intentions, good people can limit children with disabilities’ access to games and relationships. Here is an example. 

A few years ago, our school had a Jump-Rope-A-Thon to raise money for charity. Many classes were on the playground jumping rope, including my class.  I noticed a student in another class who was simply watching all the fun and action from the sidelines.  When I looked closer, I noticed that she had a disability. 

This girl’s teacher was an amazing educator.  A mentor of mine. Very professional. Very kind and thoughtful.  I was surprised to see her student left out of the games.  I walked over and, in front of my esteemed colleague, asked the child if she wanted to play too.  She did.  Although her cerebral palsy prevented her from jumping rope on her own, there were some things she could do with support and other things she could do on her own. 

The first thing I did was ask the student what she would like to do and how she wanted to do it.  She had some ideas: “I want to wiggle the rope on the ground while people are jumping over it.” And later, “I want to hop over the rope too, but I need help.”  She felt comfortable enough with me to ask for help. I helped her to get situated with her peers in order to wiggle the rope for others, and later I even helped her to jump tandem with me. Then her friends came up with some other accommodations to include her. It was a dream come true for any advocate for inclusion.

Inclusion in any environment is not just about parallel play or exposure or incidental learning.  It’s about a future. A future with purpose, with friends, with life quality. 

Children with disabilities on an “inclusive” playground will not necessarily be able to “play” with “friends” without support. Some children need help making friends and learning how to play. And some need that support over many years, especially those with communication and/or behavioral challenges.  Others simply need access to the games, activities, and environments to which all other students have access.

When we simply drop off students at the playground and hope for the best, we are ignoring possibly the most important part of a child’s educational experience.  And yet, the teachers who educate students in the classroom are in need of a break and cannot be outside during recess to support social successes there. Even though we do have supervision at recess times, often we become comfortable, and we forget to ensure that everyone belongs and everyone has access.  We do not train our staff to facilitate an inclusive recess community.  We train them to keep students safe. In that context, we do not ask children what it is that they want and need to truly be included. When we give no support, or we give inadequately aware, committed, and creative support, we drop the ball and miss a prime opportunity.  

If we are to see successful inclusion on playgrounds, then schools and districts must see the value of planning ahead and structuring activities and environments toward successful play experiences.  By investing in our students’ successful inclusion today, we tear down today’s “fences” and we create brighter futures for all children.

When we don’t have inclusion on the playground we put people with disabilities at risk for a segregated future. Joaquin went from being fenced in at school to being fenced in at an institution as an adult.

When we don’t have inclusion on the playground we put people with disabilities at risk for a segregated future. Joaquin went from being fenced in at school to being fenced in at an institution as an adult.

After years of fighting the system, Joaquin was finally allowed to return home to the community, to a home of his own, a home of his choosing, near family and friends, on November 4, 2011.  He celebrated 3 years of freedom this month.

After years of fighting the system, Joaquin was finally allowed to return home to the community, to a home of his own, a home of his choosing, near family and friends, on November 4, 2011.  He celebrated 3 years of freedom this month.

Diana and Joaquin.  Love is the best medicine.

Diana and Joaquin.  Love is the best medicine.

Joaquin now enjoys freedom and a sense of belonging in his own community.

Joaquin now enjoys freedom and a sense of
belonging in his own community.

Joaquin is no longer threatened by "fences."

Joaquin is no longer threatened by "fences."