Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/November 1883/The Utility of School-Recesses

643250Popular Science Monthly Volume 24 November 1883 — The Utility of School-Recesses1883Joseph Carter



THERE is a growing tendency to abandon the school-recess. The editor of the Boston "Journal of Education" says of the no-recess experiment, adopted in Rochester, New York, that it has given "perfect satisfaction." Among the advantages gained, he mentions, "a continuous school-session without interruptions in school-work"; "better health of pupils, on account of freedom from exposure to cold and wet weather in the midst of each session"; "discipline easier, on account of freedom from recess-troubles"; "more time for teachers," etc.; "less tardiness and absenteeism"; and less frequent opportunities for vicious pupils to come in contact with and corrupt other pupils." Believing that these reasons are unsatisfactory, and that the tendency is a bad one, I propose to offer some general considerations that weigh strongly against it.

The schools are utilitarian in their aim; to fit the child for living successfully is the object of their existence. As animal strength is the foundation of all moral and physical welfare, and is the chief condition of success in all the pursuits of life, the future welfare of the child in every way depends upon the normal development of his body.

An effeminate man is half sick; and when it comes to any of the severer trials of life, either physical or moral, where great endurance or courage is required, the weakest must inevitably be the first to succumb. This is as true of moral trials as of physical, for moral cowardice often results from physical feebleness. It is to be doubted if anything that is taught in the schools is of so much value to a child that it would not better be foregone than to be obtained by the loss of any physical vigor whatever. Taken in the truest sense, that city has the best schools where the school restraints have least effect upon the physical growth and normal development of the pupils, and not the one where the pupils show the greatest proficiency in acquiring in a memoriter way a few fragments of conventional facts which happen irrationally to pass current for an education. But because in so many schools the test to be applied at the end of the term, or at the end of the course, is the memoriter one, and because no teacher expects her pupils to be examined as to their health, or as to whether they are forming habits of life that will be conducive to healthfulness, it is not to be wondered at that all the plans of the teacher look more to the development of conventional proficiency than to the infinitely more important matter of health.

Under our present standard for successful teaching, it is a necessity that the teacher bend all her energies to the attainment of those things which are to be measured by a technical school examination, and that the matter of health be entirely ignored; in fact, it is a thing rather to be shunned, for, as a rule, the nervous, sallow-cheeked, flat-chested boy or girl, with the attenuated skeleton, will vanquish his more robust and healthful brother in one of these examination-jousts; and that teacher whose school contains the largest per cent of the former class may reasonably expect to obtain the greatest per cent from the examination by the superintendent. Hence it is that the "no-recess" plan will frequently meet with great favor among teachers who are most zealous and honest in doing their duty as they understand it.

There is already too strong a tendency, under our mode of civilization, to form troglodytic habits. This is shown by the number of people who flock to the cities, by the number of boys who seek in-door employment, and by the prevalent sentiment that any person who is properly educated will secure something to do where he may stay in the shade and away from the weather. That the abandonment of the out-door recess in our schools will strengthen this tendency to an indoor life, and weaken the disposition, born with every child having a normal development, to get out-of-doors, can not be doubted. That this "no-recess" plan is in direct opposition to all the instincts of the child's nature, ought to insure its immediate condemnation.

Muscular action for the health of a growing child is a necessity, and the amount of exercise that a child will take, when permitted to roam out-of-doors with congenial company at his own sweet will, is a quantity of vast magnitude. Muscular action is and should be a thing for which the child has an appetite, a craving, as intense as any he ever feels for food or fruit, and no school discipline should be allowed to interfere with its necessary gratification. The play-ground is more of a necessity to a school of young children than any of the other school appliances.

Recognizing the violence that the no-recess plan is doing to the future well-being of their pupils, some superintendents have invented a series of in-door games, which are played for a few minutes, at short intervals, in the school-room, under the charge of the teacher, such as tossing little bags of beans, marching, exercises with the arms and legs, and the like. The best of such exercises fall very far short of the real, soul-stirring, cheek-glowing, muscle and brain making exercise of the play-ground; while the poorest of them—and all are poor when they take the place of the open-air recess—are the severest trial of the day, both to the nerves and the amiability of teacher and pupils. As a rule, there is no other school exercise in which there is so much friction between teacher and pupils, none other where so frequent appeals are made to higher authority, and none other from which the pupil so often tries to escape, as this gymnastics. The law of physics, that all bodies move in the direction of least resistance, ought to show teachers that this plan, in its present form, should be abandoned. Children do not like to be marched around under the direction of a teacher who needs the exercise more than they, and who sits or stands still while they are marching. During a five years' military service, the hardest campaign I went through was a three months' drill, and I never saw a regiment but would sooner undertake a week of severest marching than a week of camp-drilling. That gymnastics can be, and sometimes is, made of great benefit to the pupils, is true, but the teachers who have the skill, ability, and enthusiasm requisite for the work are very rare. Children have a desire to manage for themselves. How often do we observe their impatience at our opening some box or package of theirs that they wish to open for themselves! And, if the teacher were competent to enter thoroughly into the spirit of the in-door game, the children would still prefer to manage it in their own way.

But if the exercise in the house, so far as muscular action is concerned, answered every purpose, it would still be unwise, because it begets the habit of in-door life, and this is destructive of all educational development except in a few very narrow lines, and it is questionable if these lines are educational in any true sense. A child with the in-door habit may be an adept at parsing, he may be skillful in translating Latin and Greek, and be able to follow in the beaten track of mathematics; but when it comes to any of the sciences, when he attempts any of the studies which relate to the phenomena of the living world, or of the objective world about him, because he has never observed these phenomena himself, he will fail. He will fail because in what he has seen and experienced there is nothing by which he will be able to translate to himself the words or the pictures of the text-book. In all the branches of natural history he can learn nothing but the words of the book. What the science of chromatics would be to a blind child, or acoustics to a deaf one, is the greater part of our science-teaching, in cities especially, to the boys and girls—Kaspar Hausers—whose life is spent in the house. Knowing so little of the phenomena of the world, they are, of course, unable to comprehend any of the grand generalizations which follow a knowledge of their causes and sequences; and, being deprived of this, they are without both the powers of observation and of the deeper reasoning which can come only as a result of facts obtained by observations of their own and kindred ones of others. To teach such children text-book science is not only a waste of the time of the child, but it is a very great damage to him, both because it will have a stultifying effect upon his mental powers, and because it will make him believe—if he learns the words and secures a fair per cent from his teacher—that he has an understanding of the subject, when, as a matter of fact, he knows nothing of it but the words in which the thoughts are expressed, while the very existence of the true thoughts is all unknown to him.

To speak of the advantages of an out-of-door life seems almost like stating truisms universally accepted; and yet the great mortality among the dwellers in-doors, their precarious tenure of life, the prevalence of nervous diseases among them, and the tendency to crime, all show that it is still necessary to refer to the ruddy health of the farmer, to his greatly prolonged life, to his freedom from insomnia, to his immunity from pulmonary complaints, and to his absence both from the prison and the almshouse, as a proof that out-door life is necessary to health and to happiness. The tendency of book-learning, under the most favorable conditions, is to too much in-door life, and, when this tendency receives the additional influence of the no-recess plan, it certainly has a powerful hold upon the young person just emerging from the school-room. Is Solomon's injunction, to "train up a child in the way he should go," sufficiently heeded? Dr. Oswald says: "Early impressions are very enduring, and can make evil habits as well as useful ones a sort of second nature. In order to forestall the chief danger of an in-door life, make your children love-sick for fresh air; make them associate the idea of fusty rooms with prison-life, punishment, and sickness." So at school, the deprivation of the regular recess ought to be as severe a punishment as the criminal code of the school permits, and to be sent to the school-room from the play-ground should be a sufficient penalty for the worst offense, and is a punishment that should be administered to the juvenile offender only for offenses of a nature similar to those which in the adult offender are punished by incarceration in the jail or bridewell.

Our physical constitution was never intended for the sluggish inactivity of our sedentary and bookish school-life, and we sin against the laws of our being when we forego necessary physical exercise. Sloth is not one of our original sins, but an acquired one, and perhaps in no other place is its acquisition so rapid as in a modern school-room, where pencils arid paper are passed to the pupils, and every movement must be quiet, subdued, and noiseless, and where the temperature is kept at a uniform degree, so that not even the involuntary muscles get any exercise. When along with this condition come the multitude of studies pursued, and the pressure of emulation, and upon all the abolition of the regular play-spell, what is there to prevent the boys and girls from forming the most fatal habits of muscular indolence? A recent writer in the "Monthly" says: "Where the chief danger seems to lie, in most schools, is in the encroachment made on the play-hours. In some schools the lessons set to be learned at home are absurdly long and tedious. I find that in other schools, public and private, a great deal of work is done during the period nominally allotted to recreation only. This is a very important part of the actual school system, and one which requires great care on the part of the masters" ("Science Monthly," March, 1880). In a school of eighty pupils, with ages ranging from twelve to fifteen years, each pupil counted his pulsations for one minute immediately before and after a fifteen minutes' recess, and recorded each result upon a card; the recess was varied, sometimes an out-door, sometimes an in-door, with light gymnastics, and sometimes the pupils were advised to follow their own inclination in the matter, but always to record upon the card how the recess was passed. These are some of the general averages:

1. Those pupils who go out and engage in play increase the number of pulsations per minute by 13·4. 2. Those who engage in in-door gymnastics increase the number by 3. 3. Those who stay in the school-room at their seats, or visiting their neighbors, decrease their number by 3·8. This increase of number of pulsations from the recess-play is by no means the full measure of the benefit derived, for that increase implies a more rapid flow of the fluid through the hemal channels, and when we know that the carrying power of fluid currents increases as the sixth power of their velocities, we can appreciate with how much greater force these currents sweep through their courses, washing away the ashes, which have been made by previous combustion, from the brain-hearth and the muscle-hearth. To the child who has been busily engaged upon his lessons, it frequently happens that the further ability to accomplish mental work successfully, and without nervous debility, depends upon the thorough removal of the débris caused by cerebral exercise. When this removal has been accomplished by recreation, the child's power has been recreated. That pupils generally do their best school-work just after recess, and that they are less "nervous" at that time, is because the exercise has increased their nerve-power, and given them a better control of their intellectual faculties, and a greater willingness to do hard thinking. Muscular exercise, then, becomes a motive power for driving forward the machinery of thought.

Were there no other objection to this plan, the one that it keeps children away from the sunlight would still be enough to condemn it. When we see the boys and girls of this country gathering at the call of the school-bell at 9 a. m., and remaining till 4 p. m., away from the sunlight—except a few minutes' walk to and from dinner—and this continued from six to sixteen years of age, for five days in a week and ten months in a year, how can we help fearing that this school-life, however good it may be in other respects, can not fail to leave its pupils with emaciated bodies, attenuated limbs, and with a general strength much below the average of what it should be, and much below the average of what it must be, in order to give them that start in the struggle for existence which they must have if they would win; it is not possible to save them from this competition; all must meet it, and the power of physical endurance is an absolute necessity for success.

Neither Latin, Greek, grammar, nor geography, can give this power; but an hour's play in the sunshine daily, for this ten years of school-life, might do so.

Not only do the out-door recesses have the advantage of air and sunshine in good weather, but in bad weather they have the advantage of exposure also; and, contrary to the commonly accepted theories, exposure to inclement weather, in a reasonable degree and with proper care, is of very great advantage. For nine years past it has been my invariable practice, at four different periods daily, for a time aggregating ninety minutes, to supervise a play-ground where several hundred children of a public school assemble. I have observed that there are certain ones, some of each sex, who are seldom absent. No cold, except, perhaps, half a dozen days of the severest, and no storm except a most drenching rain, ever drives them into their school-rooms. Through all ordinary rains and snows they seem to feel no discomfort. With lists of the names of these I have examined the registers of daily attendance kept by the teachers, and, upon making out lists of their absences from school on account of sickness, find their per cent is not one fifth as great as that of the whole school, and not one twelfth as great as that of an equal number of pupils of the same grade who are never seen upon the play-ground in either good or bad weather.

At first sight these figures seem inexplicable; but when any one looks about his own town and sees families of laboring-men with half a dozen children to each house, and sees their houses are poorly built, that they admit the wind and sometimes the rain, he sees the children running about in quite frosty weather barefoot, he sees them playing in the rain and storm with perfect freedom from colds, and he knows they are seldom sick—then if he looks up the avenue to some residence with its double windows, its base-burner, which keeps the house at a uniform temperature, and observes when the children come out how carefully they are protected from the weather, and how very delicate they are, he will, if he is thoughtful, soon conclude that the good health of the children of the laboring-man is because they encounter exposure, and not that they encounter exposure because of their good health.

Where school-rooms are warmed by an abundance of pure, warm air, and where pupils have perfect liberty to go at any time to the registers to warm and dry shoes and clothing, they will not suffer by any voluntary out-door exposure, however inclement the weather. There seem to be no other gymnastics for the involuntary muscles, those controlling the vital functions of respiration and circulation, but exposure and vigorous exercise. Who has ever heard a hale old man, who had long since passed his allotted halting-place of threescore-and-ten, tell of his youth, but could tell of exposure, constant and severe, in his youth? Hunters, wood-choppers, ranchers, and soldiers, are not afraid of the weather, nor are they subject to coughs and colds. During five years of army life as a trooper, our regiment was never in barracks, and much of the time was without tents. Often we were wet to the skin, and sat our horses till our clothes dried upon us by the heat from our bodies without feeling any other effect than an increased appetite. By exposure we were made water-proof; and I believe children can be made largely cold-proof, and sickness-proof, by allowing them their own free-wills as to exposure.

Children need the rough-and-tumble of an out-door recess to toughen the sinews of the body. Many at home are so tenderly cared for that, what with cushioned chairs, stuffed sofas, and spring-seats to the very carriages in which they ride to school, they are in danger of becoming too tender for even this usage; and, if they are ever to accomplish anything in this world, they must somewhere acquire the physical power to endure many hard knocks in the various ways and stations of life. They can not always be held in their nurses' arms. They will meet with accidents which, if they are accustomed to the games of the play-ground, will not affect them at all, but which, if they are not, will lay them up with a lame side, a sprained ankle, or a dislocated joint. Falls and tumbles occur daily upon the play-ground, with no injurious effects whatever, which would put some of the tenderly nurtured in bed for a week. The play-ground is the only place connected with the schools where children can become hardy: and this element of hardiness has been very strongly marked in all successful men. It is not the carpet-knights who to-day rule in politics or in business—no, nor in science or religion—but the men who have grit and toughness, men who fear neither ridicule nor a crowd of rowdies.

Take the boy who has a few companions to play with him upon his own lawn, and who, like himself, are carefully kept from the society of the rougher and more world-wise boys of the street, and how is he to get any knowledge of the methods or the power by which these others are to be controlled in after-life? Yet this boy and his class are those who in many respects ought to have a controlling influence on the destiny of his neighborhood, but, because he has no acquaintance with the other class, because he does not know what are their ruling motives, he is powerless for good among them. By means of this knowledge those agitators among the people, like Moody and Dennis Kearny, the leading politician in each town and ward, and the organizers of strikes, have such power among the masses; and their lack of this knowledge is the main cause of failure of our citizens' social-reform societies and kindred organizations which attempt some very laudable reforms. As the boy is father to the man, so the play-ground is the antecedent of the future society of the town or ward, and upon the play-ground, more than in the school-room, the leaders of the future are made; there the boy must learn, if he ever learn it, how to lead, control, and master the others—boys to-day, but men to-morrow. The school-room is an autocracy, with the teacher for autocrat and the pupils for subjects, but the play-ground is a pure democracy: there each, in proportion to his strength, dexterity, and skill, is equal to any other; there the egotist learns his insignificance, the rude boy gets his first lessons in common courtesy, and there the bully learns that his ways are not approved.

But the ruling sentiment of the play-ground must not be allowed to form itself by accident: children must not be left to themselves at these times.

An out-door recess needs the controlling presence of the teacher quite as much as an in-door one, and more than the ordinary exercise of the school-room, and because this has been neglected is the reason why some people have objected to it. Several hundred children, after experiencing the restraint of the school-room, should not be released upon the play-ground without supervision competent to suppress whatever may appear that is pernicious. There is no other time in all the day when competent guidance can do so much to make boys manly and girls womanly as when they are at their games. It is not enough to leave the play-ground to the janitor or to some inferior authority; it is the place where the principal teacher and nearly all the others are most needed—not to direct the games, or to meddle in any way with the sports, but to be ready with a cheery voice and an easy grace to suggest to any one about to engage in anything improper that he has forgotten himself. Ruffianism will soon disappear, timid children will learn to assert themselves, and an esprit de corps of the play-ground can soon be formed which will have a wonderful influence on the characters as well as the actions of the pupils. Nor is the benefit to the pupils all that is derived from this plan; the teacher needs such a recess quite as much as, and in many cases more than, her pupils. Fifteen minutes of each ninety in the open air, away from the sights and thoughts of the lessons, will remove the nervous, tired, irritable, and almost despondent feeling experienced by many teachers, and give them renewed strength and cheerfulness and mental elasticity for the remainder of the session. By being upon the play-ground among her pupils, many a teacher learns their character, their ambitions, the bent of their minds, as she can not learn them in the peculiar position in the school-room; and yet there are many children who, unless understood in these particulars, can not be successfully taught. To the teacher who sees her pupils only in their relation of pupils, the school-work is very likely to become a grind, a machine at which she is to perform a regular and a constant part, and the children are little else than so much raw material which is to pass through the mill over which she presides. She sees no individuality in them, and of course her work is arranged for the aggregate, and individuals receive no consideration as such. To overcome this error there is nothing better than for her to see them daily at their sports, for there their distinctive characteristics are manifested as in no other place. If the schools are to build character, certainly an out-door recess is an absolute essential for both teacher and pupils.