August 12th, 2022


Shall I Compare Thee To a Prison Yard?

Lenore Skenazy

By Lenore Skenazy

Published April 2, 2021

Shall I Compare Thee To a Prison Yard?
In an effort to eliminate bullying, a school in England has replaced breaktime playground games with poetry recitations, choir and quizzes. Said Charlotte Whelan, the Hackney New School head teacher (the British equivalent of a principal): "A school without bullying sounds like a utopia, but it is achievable."

Whether or not reciting Percy Shelley during recess is your idea of utopia, a BBC piece on the school quotes Whelan saying: "It's long been my belief that we could be doing more for pupils while they are on their breaks. So often you see them aimlessly wandering the playground. We want every second at school to count."

I'm sure the kids are counting the seconds, too.

Clearly, Whelan is of the belief that kids' brains shut down the moment they are not engaged in something officially academic. Now the students, aged 11-16, practice sonnets by bards of yore and recite them in the lunch line — or even while eating. For even more fun, Whelan said, they "quiz each other on capital cities."


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The issue here is not just the Dolores Umbridge nature of the administration. It's the inability of that administration to believe that kids could possibly be learning anything — or not bullying — when they are allowed to goof around. The "teachable moment" notion of child development is so thick here that kids are not allowed to "waste" their time even in between bites.

This notion is wrong. "When they are free to play in their own ways, children practice the most important skills required to move toward adulthood — how to take initiative, make their own decisions, solve their own problems, negotiate with peers and, yes, how to deal with others who aren't always nice," says Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray, one of the co-founders of Let Grow with me. "When we prevent them from such opportunities by taking continuous control of their lives, we prevent them from growing up."

Prevent away! That seems to be the philosophy of those who believe the only way to end bullying is to end any freedom the students enjoyed. Linda James, founder of a nonprofit called Bullies Out, notes in the BBC piece, "Unstructured games can sometimes lead to nasty comments, aggressive behavior or children feeling left out."

She's right: some sad feelings — and betrayals and loneliness — are inevitable in childhood (and adulthood!). Talk about your teachable moments! Not that anyone wants kids facing constant cruelty. But learning how to deal with some playground frustration is actually a big life skill it behooves kids to learn.

I doubt it will come as a surprise that another expert quoted in the piece said it is important for schools to create safe spaces, where kids "feel supported and included."

In other words: Kids will fall behind and hurt one another the second they get the chance, so the only option is to micromanage every interaction — and throw in some sonnets.