“RE-CESS!”I shall forever feel the thrill of those two syllables. The bell would ring, and a class nicely lined up two-by-two would race their way out of the building. At Lee Street School, even in the coldest weather, coats and sweaters piled up under the Ginko tree (whose fan-shaped leaves appeared in window-decorating collages every fall) that somehow grew in the concrete. I think I remember a boys yard and a girls yard, but sex segregation, based on the idea that boys were too rough, I assume, didn’t really hamper the ramped up energy of every kid out there.

This is not politically correct to say, but I’ve observed that, boys and girls don’t really play together that much except when so instructed after about first grade. When my own children were little, the boys and girls played similar games–I mean girls played football too, and boys played “store,” but at a certain point the kids divided into boy groups and girl groups. My son’s friends had a continual game of touch football that lasted at least through middle school. I’m not sure if either team actually ever scored. In about fourth grade small side groups began to form, whose members were busy perfecting the art of being mean.

So recess has its downside too, one that people concerned with bullying spend much time studying. As they should. Because even if kids don’t physically hurt each other, bullying can leave scars. (I have written about bullying for McCalls Magazine, Child Magazine, Weekly Reader Current Health, and other magazines. I think it’s an important issue.)

Still, an enormous amount of learning goes on in the schoolyard, and not all of it happens in the large and small muscles which learn to do things like jump and skip. During recess games, kids get their first practice in the fine art of negotiation. They learn spatial relations. Math skills (1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi). They figure out how to fill time and begin to develop body clocks. Then we have the social skills (fine art of negotiation, part 2): if you’re nice, you’ll have lots of friends. Similarly, if you’re mean in a certain way you’ll have lots of friends too. Imaginations get stretched along with hamstrings. And, miraculously, the skills kids need to do well in academically (and on tests) get practiced too. Kids who pay heed to following rules, or just a conversation, are also learning to track words the way they will do when reading. Recess gamesĀ  hone a child’s memory and help deepen the synapses in their developing brains.

The value of play became a hot topic again this past week first with an article in the New York Times, “The Effort to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum” (http://tinyurl.com/4ntupwh) followed by a blog post by Lisa Belkin, “The Mess of Children’s Play,” (http://tinyurl.com/6k372yp). Ms. Belkin quotes the famous words of Captain Kangaroo (Bob Kesham): Play is the work of children. She could have added in Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, Dr. Spock, Tufts University’s Child and Family Web Guide, Ellen Galinsky, and, no small potatoes here, The Nation Association for the Development of young children (http://www.naeyc.org) which has been fighting for recess for as long as I can remember.

With the spotlight again on the benefits of play for children of all ages, we can hope that more schools will take time to consider the equipment offered on their playgrounds. I hardly see see-saws anymore–and for good reason: child wanders under upper half and gets bopped in the head when that part comes down; child jumps on one end, sending child on other end catpulting into the air. Oh, I’ve seen a lot that isn’t pretty. Also, for good reason all-wood play grounds have fallen out of favor. They rot, provide great nests for rats and other non-classroom animals, and give off big splinters.

With school budgets being cut all over, PTAs in many communities are rising to the challenge and purchasing as much outdoor equipment as they can for as much as they make through bake sales and other fundraising efforts.

So for you playgroung dreamers, here are some great, essential and well-priced pieces I’ve come across lately:



I used to think interlocking rubber mats made a great surface. In fact, I used to think pea gravel was terrific too. Interlocking rubber mats have a few advantages in that they come in colors and can be laid in a pattern formation that not only looks pretty, but can direct play in sometimes necessary ways. The blue room, for instance, can gather on the blue mats. I’ve come to believe pea gravel is dangerous and a last choice since if a kid falls hard and gets an open wound, gravel can be imbedded in the skin and need to be (ouch!) removed with a needed or tweezersTimbers_400

This rubber mulch is non-toxic, environmentally friendly, requires almost no maintenance. You can find it online at http://www.detailedplaypro.com/playground-surfacing.htm.



Even when they’re outside, kids like to pretend they’re inside. Yes, one would think, a strange play pattern. But it’s developmentally right on target for preschoolers through elementary school.

I love this one.


OK. Totally impractical. But here’s the URL for this cape cod at Playhouses.com: http://tinyurl.com/68fyg3f



Try this one instead:


This basic piece comes in four different designs. I’ve seen children use it to play store, fort, and post office (the I’m buying stamps kind, not the kissing version). I’ve also seen it used as a clubhouse–no boys allowed. You can find it at www.gametime.com.

Slides are necessary.

I’ve seen this set in a school yard outside of Boston as well as in New York City. This particular configuration is geared to 2-5 year old set. Especially cool are the numbers that children can spin and play with while waiting their turn. The company that makes this one, BYOplayground.com, has other configurations that work for older children–steeper slides, etc.


As are things to crawl through.

48__RIGHT_TUNNEL_4cb4c1cb28f12_200x180This one is from sitecreationsplayground.com. It’s quite colorful and looks fun. However, I prefer when the sides of the tunnels are clear plastic so teachers and parents can keep an eye on what’s going on inside. In your search, you’ll probably come across some of those.



Finally, don’t forget the jump ropes, balls and parachutes!

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MySimon has good prices: http://tinyurl.com/5vnfxbb

Online you’ll find companies in your area that will build you a nice-looking playground with terrific components. Always speak to the company on the phone before ordering anything beyond a jump rope. Ideally, the company will have local representatives who can look at your site and suggest the best use of space.

One final thought: play equipment is terrific. But if your budget doesn’t allow anything fancy, believe me, a plot of grass will do just fine. The kids might go home with green knees, but that’s just proof of all the work they’ve accomplished that day.