Thursday, March 6, 2008

Bringing peace to the playground




BY CHRIS WIEBE
The Leader- Burbank, CA
March 6, 2008

MAGNOLIA PARK DISTRICT — During a game of four-square at Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School Wednesday, second-graders Luis Reyes, 7, and Cassidy McNeill, 8, reached an impasse over a point.

“It was in,” Luis said.

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“It’s out!” Cassidy fired back.

But before the conflict escalated any further, the two broke out into a spontaneous game of rock-paper-scissors and Luis — losing his paper to Cassidy’s scissors on the first throw — skipped away without further debate to join the other students in line waiting to play.

The episode is an everyday occurrence at Roosevelt, where the school’s “Peaceful Playgrounds” program sets explicit rules and dispute resolution activities to help children get along during lunchtime and recess.

The program, which has operated informally for the past year, will receive a boost from the Burbank Kiwanis Friday, with the donation of $1,000 that enables Roosevelt to contract with the countrywide Peaceful Playground program. The national affiliation will put the school in a network of thousands of schools privy to updates on and ideas on how the program is run, Roosevelt Principal Betsy Quinn said.

“The purpose of it is to solve a conflict quickly and keep playing, maximizing the time that children have to play so they’re not fretting or arguing about it,” she said. “And quite frankly problems on the playground have gone down dramatically.”

To carry out the program, Roosevelt officials first marked the blacktop with game boundaries — for everything from traditional games like basketball and four-square to newer games like long ball and extreme dodge ball.

Then a 3-inch-by-5-inch rule booklet governing the games was distributed to students, parents and yard monitors, which also covers safe and proper use of slides, monkey bars, jump ropes and other playground equipment, Quinn said.

“It’s a matter of teaching children what the rules are for each of the games,” she said. “And they can’t make up games, and they can’t make up rules for games.”

Playground conflicts often germinate from more aggressive children taking advantage of the others, or changing the rules midstream to benefit themselves or their team, she said. But having a system of explicit rules in place puts everyone on common ground.

“With basketball, for example, no matter what grade, there are the same rules and one of the bottom-lying premises of the program is that everyone plays or no one plays,” she said. “So you can’t exclude people.”

And the idea is ingrained in the children, who eagerly recite the precepts of the program.

“You get to play more than you’re arguing,” Cassidy said.

Roosevelt parents report seeing tangible improvements in schools as a result of the program.

Burbank resident Jane LeGate-Clarke has noticed the impact of the program on her children, Carson Clarke, 7, a second-grader, and Cole Clarke, 11, who graduated from Roosevelt last year.

“I think it’s been fabulous because when my older son went through he had lots of issues with kids changing the rules when you get up to play a game and who was supposed to set the rules,” she said. “And it kind of got to be not fun for him. And I’ve noticed a huge difference with less complaining and, especially with my younger son, they even solve the problems on their own.”

And conflict resolution techniques have also spilled over into the home, where Carson and Cole sometimes decide things like who gets the bathroom first in the morning with a game of rock, paper, scissors, she said.

“I just have definitely seen a huge difference and I feel better,” LeGate-Clark said. “I feel more rested and at ease about knowing that there’s not going to be something bad happening [at school].”

Studies show that children who consistently have negative experiences on the playground tend to be withdrawn and uncommunicative in the classroom, said Roosevelt parent Laura Anderson, who has helped organize the Peaceful Playgrounds program.

“I feel like it’s a great, positive tool to empower kids,” she said.