• Educating Gender

Playgrounds and Classrooms and Everything In-between


Jessie is wicked fast. She’s so fast, that when she’s standing still she still looks like she’s moving.


For months, the third grade recess yard at school has become a spectator event. The teachers and administrators quietly descend down to the yard, even if they do not have yard duty just to watch what’s been happening. While most of the kids are playing other games, throwing a ball or just chatting, Jessie has been dominating a two loop race and no one has come near to beating her. She even passes some of the runners, almost all boys, as she flies by them at super speed. The adults watch because extraordinary is always extraordinary to watch. She does not spend all of her 17 minutes of recess time racing, but invariably, some other 3rd grader, typically a boy, decides that this is the day she is going to lose even though there is no evidence to support such a claim.

Everyday she lines up with 3 to 4 other boys, the other kids fight to be the ones to wave the start flag, and off they go. Her quick twitch muscles are just a genetically unfair advantage as her feet begin to turn into a blur. She crosses the finish line and does not even bother to look back. With a huge smile on her face, she goes off to play with the other kids, barely out of breath. The boys she has raced express an exhausted frustration but also a respect and astonishment for what she can do. It defies their understanding of gender that a girl could beat them so badly and with such ease.

Us adults also watch in amazement, smiling and shaking our heads with awe.

It is no secret in the world of education that the recess yard is both a hotbed of educational opportunity and also has the potential for creating social and emotional conflict. Good schools provide proper recess time for students with an appropriate amount of adult supervision. Great schools are looking to turn recess time into another classroom, trying to strike a balance between student freedom and the resources necessary to meet as many of the students' needs as possible. The real challenge is whether, intentionally or not, play time, outdoor and indoor play spaces, and equipment create an increasingly narrow and confining set of choices for students, often based on gender bias and gender expectations.

The boys she has raced express an exhausted frustration but also a respect and astonishment for what she can do. It defies their understanding of gender that a girl could beat them so badly and with such ease.

Before children even get a chance to experiment and engage with different types of play and interaction with their peers, regardless of gender, the signifiers (balls, bats, basketballs, jump ropes, hopscotch, etc.) are laid before them as supposed “options” on the yard. With other outside influences also guiding their choices, media, family, and the commercial world, adults in schools are often unwittingly turning recess and play time from a potential educational opportunity into a reinforcement of narrow choices which can ultimately lead to a sense of alienation or even bullying based on ever narrowing gender assumptions as students get older. Playgrounds and yards are often the domain of students, where they yield more control and autonomy than over other spaces in schools, but they are still constructed and ordered by adults.

So what’s a school to do?

Great schools are looking to turn recess time into another classroom, trying to strike a balance between student freedom and the resources necessary for as many students’ needs to be met as possible.

In two earlier blog posts, (The Writing on the Wall Part I and Part II,) I discussed both the issues surrounding classroom construction by teachers and how they can lead to learning challenges for students based on gender assumptions. I also provided an evaluation tool by which teachers and administrators can help foster more supportive spaces for learners, regardless of gender. Schools should plan and think about the recess year in a similar fashion, asking such questions as:

  • How does our equipment purchasing before the year begins provide as wide a net as possible for students to engage positively during recess?

  • Can we teach students games which encourage a proper balance between participation and competition?

  • Can we develop themed weeks on the recess yard where there are times when students can have their autonomy and can also learn to interact in multiple social configurations?

  • Can faculty supervisors also become data collectors, just as they do in classrooms, to assess whether students are stretching their imagination and collaboration muscles during recess?

Playgrounds are often the domain of students, with more control and autonomy than over other spaces in schools, but they are still constructed and ordered by adults.

Our friend Jessie is blessed with an innate physical gift, her quick twitch muscles, which allow her access to many more opportunities for interaction and possibilities for play, regardless of gender. Educators and school leaders should be looking to make these possibilities open to everyone who comes running out to play once or twice a day on the recess yard

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Jason is flexible and attentive, yet remains committed to his high expectations of my work in tackling tough situations and tasks.  With a sense of humor and compassion for the rigor of a leadership position, he knows how to guide me with just the right amount of productive stress.  I appreciate that.

Daphne Orenshein - Elementary School Principal: Hillel Hebrew Academy

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