Don’t Touch Tag!

Group Of Young Children Running Towards Camera In ParkWell, parents, that was an interesting experiment. The Mercer Island School District has now rescinded it’s policy banning school children from touching each other on the playground.  The tug of war between parents and administrators that even drew the national spotlight is over; Tag is Back!

I’m compelled to write about this No-Touch policy because it’s been going on in my backyard, or to be precise, my playground. The one where my various kids have played for 11 years and a spot they’d likely tell you was their favorite at the school.

Here’s one takeaway that I hope district administrators have learned here: Don’t blame the game.  If 300 students running around like Lord of the Flies with just 6 duties isn’t working, then discuss with us how change needs to happen. Let us help problem solve. Remember the Kelso’s Choices Wheel?  At about 1 o’clock on that wheel, Kelso the frog’s choice is to “Talk it Out.”

In his press release announcing the change policy, Superintendent Gary Plano writes, The ‘hands-off’ policy intended for unstructured play and recess however well intended, has led to confusion, false reporting and clearly not supported by many staff and many parents. Although the plan was focused on keeping students safe, it lacked stakeholder participation and support.

To say it lacked stakeholder participation and support is putting it mildly. You want to talk stakes, parents were ready to burn someone at the stake over this. When the district took the old-fashioned game of Tag away from our kids, it weirdly felt like a highlight of American childhood was about to become extinct. We became playground preservationists. Running around swatting at your friends yelling “You’re It!” was about to disappear, like homemade cupcakes for snack at classroom birthday parties. Or just breezing into school to give our kid a forgotten paper without having to scan our drivers’ license. Gone, poof.

I would not have expected MISD to hold public hearings on this: In a couple of capacities in recent years I helped try to bring parents into auditoriums to learn about our desperately overcrowded schools (which, by the way translates into desperately over crowded playgrounds) and we’d get only a handful of parents on a good night.

But, there are systems in place which might have alerted parents. I chaired Lakeridge’s School Advisory Council last year. Did I get a call on this over the summer? Nope. Did the mom who’s chairing it this year? Nope. Or what about the PTA? No. In hindsight, the silence was deafening.

Many of us parents do understand that something horrible happened to a child on the playground last spring. And, we understand that *if* the district were staring down the barrel of litigation it would be looking to make changes. (Superindent Gary Plano would not comment on the litigation question.) But by being proactive with parents, the news wouldn’t have filtered up through our kids.  And by the way, isn’t it fair for parents to ask, for the adults who were being paid to supervise the children on the playground, were there consequences? Or, is it unfair for parents to expect the duties to see all things at all times?

So where do we go from here? Maybe it’s toward the national trend for “structured recess”, private supervision or at least better-trained support on hundreds of other school playgrounds around the country. My ParentMap colleague Kristen Russell wrote about it last year in an article, “State of Play; Redefining Recess.”

 Its widely known that many of the worst sorts of bullying take place on the playground, where happy chaos provides cover and playground monitors try but inevitably fail to be everywhere at once. Small aggressions the little cruelties of childhood: pushing and shoving, subtle put-downs and exclusions, taking cuts and calling names have always been part and parcel of recess, the cost of letting wound-up kids off the leash for a much-needed release. But for some, the cost is becoming too high., Russell writes.

Reams have been written on the value of unstructured play. In addition to the research, many of us parents with kids in sports feel it in our hearts not to mention our pocketbooks: We spend hundreds of dollars on private premier sports leagues for our 9 year olds to be kitted out like mini-pros but quite honestly, they’re no happier than when they are running around with their friends on the street. One of my favorite authors on the topic of the U.S. youth sports culture gone mad, Tom Farrey writes in his book Game On, “Now its rare to see kids of any age playing sports in any location without the company of a coach.”

Tag is a game that involves a group that’s flexible in size. Maybe sometimes kids flush each other, “toilet tag”, sometimes they infect each other. That’s my son’s favorite, “infection tag.” Other times they freeze their friends. Lets face it, it’s refreshing.

Superintendent Plano writes in his letter to parents, that while Tag has been reinstated, “Other respectful games that involve appropriate physical interaction are also encouraged.” Great, but let’s all admit there’s nothing inherently disrespectful about Tag. Yes, indeed the physical interaction needs to be appropriate.  There may be problems on the playground that need fixing. But Tag was the wrong target. I, for one, am glad it lives on.



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