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Tag Getting a Time Out at School: Part I

Columnist Jessica Yee ponders whether or not children should be allowed to play tag at school.

My fifth-grade son loves to play tag with his friends and complains that it is banned from school. I found the ban odd, because I remember playing tag with relish growing up. Tag for me as a kid was exciting and physically demanding but also very social. I couldn’t understand why it would be banned, so I made some inquiries.

I found that has formal guidelines and rules that apply not only to tag but to all kinds of playground activities. Additionally, Marengo isn't alone in giving tag and other rough-and-tumble games a time out—games such as tag and touch football are being banned across the nation. 

One rule that prevents my son and his friends from playing tag is “chasing of any kind will not be permitted anywhere on the playground.” This restricts kids from playing the kinds of active games that elementary school kids gravitate to naturally.  Even for permitted activities, there are pretty detailed protocols in place.

Here are some rules related to swings: 

1) A person must pump himself/herself—no pushing.

2) One person at a time on each swing.

3) Lineup spot: Walk in front on the blacktop and then to the swing.

4) Sit down on the swing facing the office, and start counting.

5) Twenty swings equals one turn. (Up and back counts as one swing.)

There are also detailed rules for using the play structures as well as playing games such as soccer, basketball, foursquare, handball, kickball and tetherball. There are even rules for waiting in line and the specificity of these rules is particularly interesting. They specify how many players may play at any one time and how disputes are to be arbitrated (the “judge” is the player who is first in line). They also specify (by grade level) the playing time for each game and where to sit or stand while waiting in line. These rules do help kids manage themselves with less adult intervention, but I can’t help wonder whether it’s a good thing to impose so many rules—particularly during one of the few periods when children have the opportunity for “free” play. 

School administrators feel that rough play causes disputes and injuries, and there is likely a substantial administrative burden on the school from handling not only those kinds of disputes and injuries but also the injured self-esteem of weaker and slower children who consistently come up short during the chase. Those administrative burdens start to have a real effect when school staffs are cut to the bone.

I suspect another big reason for the ban on chase games is the potential for lawsuits from parents with injured children.

“We don’t have district-wide rules about which games can be played on the playground," said South Pasadena Unified School District Superintendent Joel Shapiro. "Our overarching goal is to make sure that all students can play in a safe environment."

Shapiro went on to say that each school has unique circumstances, such as playground size and configuration, the placement of equipment, the number of students at recess, pathways of student travel and the number of adult supervisors. As a result, "the principal and staff at each school decides which games are safe at their site," he said. 

In terms of tag, Shapiro said it can be dangerous if there’s not enough room to contain the game in its own area. Also, a game like tag doesn't have rules to control the extent of physical contact. Teachers often notice that tagging turns into pushing, and injuries start to increase. For these reasons, a school might decide that it’s not safe.

Many parents and health experts believe that the ban is harmful to child development—physically and psychologically—particularly when child obesity is a major national issue. According to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, childhood obesity has tripled to 15 percent over the last 30 years; one third of American children are overweight. Eating too many calories and not getting enough physical activity are both cited as primary reasons for child obesity and unhealthy weight. During an era when everybody’s lifestyles (including those of children) are trending more sedentary and structured, free rigorous play on the school ground with friends is the perfect setting for getting some exercise, bonding with friends and learning to solve conflicts. 

*Check back tomorrow as Yee continues to explore the importance of tag in schools and our children's lives. In the meantime, what are your thoughts on the topic?

Beth May 17, 2011 at 02:23 AM
Thanks for sharing your story. With the supervision and support, tag should not and does not need to be banned in school! Working with students to identify and teach rules of safety for the school yard is, however, important. For example, teaching all children to use shimmy or butterfly finger style tagging eliminates pushing. It can also be helpful to determine youth leaders on the school yard so that they can help others engage in safe, inclusive play. These things can help schools decrease injuries and conflicts during recess while still maintaining youth freedom and empowerment. I look forward to hearing more tomorrow.
Isaac Marziali May 17, 2011 at 03:37 AM
Tag is a game that children enjoy. There is nothing wrong with letting kids play tag. I went to summer school at Arroyo Vista and I ran right in front of the yard supervisors playing tag and they didn't care. In my opinion, the people who make the rules are being over-protective. Okay, if you fall while playing tag, you might bump your knee. On the grass, you might get a grass burn. Tag is just an original game that children enjoy. Let the kids run free, let them enjoy playing tag. I agree with your opinion Jessica.
Lilly May 17, 2011 at 05:51 AM
This is so stupid. Really, tag. What's next? No wonder at the Jr High juggling is considered a sport. Everyone gets a little bruised. I am sure all it took was one parent crying to the school and there you go. It's all part of growing up. Kids will get hurt whether it is at school, or at the many sport your son or daughter is signed up for. I went to school here in SP from Elementary to Jr High to HS and there were none of these rules. Come on people.
Glaros May 17, 2011 at 08:04 AM
Unbelievable! I agree with Lilly! Let children learn from falling, organizing and estimating. If adults want to step in, make sure everyone plays, otherwise, let kids be kids.
John "Jack" Russell February 09, 2012 at 12:56 PM
I am a graduate of Marengo Elementary School Class of 1943! I can recall only one Recess Time rule: No pushing a person on a swing. In those days, the school swings' seats were heavy planks of wood fastened to the metal swing chains by "Y" shaped anchors with large nuts and washers on the underside of the swing. A child could get hit, either, by the heavy plank seat, or the extended threaded "Y" anchor and nuts. Duringt my 4th day of First Grade, my forehead was split open while pushing a classmate on a swing. I suspect I did not pay attention to the playground rule. Otherwise, the kids played softball, dodge ball, chasing tag, basketball, tag football, Jacks, hop-Scotch, broad jumped, swung on the parallel bars, and slid down the slides. Perhaps, there was another rule about not running up the slide, but my memory is a bit shady, 70 years later. The Marengo playground was dreadful, in those days. Basically, the entire area was covered with aging asphalt paving, with many low spots where sand and gravel collected. My knees, to this day, show the scars of my sliding accidents on that dangerous pavement. No one seemed terribly concerned...except my Mom who had to mend my pants with patches, on a regular basis. Nevertheless, I loved my six years at Marengo School. I hold many fond memories of various games and activities on its playgrounds and on the front lawn. I feel badly the kids' freedom, to play and express themselves, are subject to overly-rigid rules.

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