One of my responsibilities as a teacher is taking my partner teacher’s class and mine outside for recess. Everywhere I’ve taught, it’s the duty I prefer since it means I get 20 minutes of fresh air and daylight in my otherwise completely enclosed day. But this year brings me extra joy as I watch my 46 Burmese and Iraqi refugee kids play.
Because these kids actually know how to play.
In my previous five years of recess duties, there would be the handful of kids who ran around with a select group of friends playing tag or racing or jumping rope or playing soccer (usually the Hispanic kids). Many of the kids would complain about having to walk or run. Many would hover around me unsure of what to do. Lots of kids would fight. Lots of tattling would occur. Kids would sit by themselves or walk by themselves. If a kid scraped his knee, he’d be afraid to play again. Empty fields were the worst recess venues. Kids would stare at me blankly or ask what they could do. I’d yell, “Go play!” They would wander aimlessly across the field. On those empty field days, I’d organize games of Mother May I, Red Light/Green Light, and What’s the Time Mr. Fox? hoping that they’d take initiative to organize themselves on the days I didn’t organize them. They never did.
My previous classes always had obese children in them. (In my class of fourth graders last year, half were obese.) They could talk endlessly of the video games they were mastering at home, and the horror movies they watched with their older brothers and sisters and parents. One year, on a Friday, I told a group of first graders that they had homework for the weekend. I said, “You need to get outside this weekend. Go to the park. Go for a walk. Play tag. Ride your bike.” One girl said, “Can you write that down for me so I don’t forget?”
Until now I thought play was a forgotten art among children. Then I started teaching refugee kids and took them outside for recess. No one sits. No one fights. Every child runs. Every single one of them. They play hard. The big kids play with the little kids, and the girls play with the boys, and the girls play with the girls without being catty. The groups are big and fluid, and everyone is included. The Iraqis yell Arabic to each other. The Burmese yell in their various dialects. And across the cultural divides, they holler at each other in their limited English. There’s always the group playing some kind of tag. Then there’s the group doing gymnastics. Some of the big boys can do front flips and back flips. The little kids practice their headstands and are learning cartwheels. Sometimes they race. Sometimes one of the Iraqi boys brings an American football, and they organize a game. The girls like to swing and slide and build things in the sand. Some of the little girls pick clovers and dandelions and bring them to me.
I love watching them play! But it makes me sad too because one day they will be mainstreamed into a regular classroom and start learning how to be “American.”. I fear they will stop playing. I fear that as they assimilate into this culture that they’ll stop going outside and play more video games and watch more movies. They’ll stop including everyone and start excluding. The girls will start being mean, and the boys will be too cool and tough to do their gymnastics or let the girls play with them. But maybe they will hold onto play. Maybe they’ll realize it’s more fun. Maybe their peers will learn from them.
In the evenings when I leave school, there are always groups of Asian adults utilizing the school fields for games of soccer. Older men walk the dirt path that weaves around the field and playgrounds. Last night when I left, in addition to the athletes, there was a small group of Asian teenagers in skinny jeans and spiked hair smoking cigarettes in the parking lot. My kids will have choices to make in their new culture. They can go either way. I pray they continue to play.