April 16, 2008 -- Accidents happen. It's a truism that extends to backyards and playgrounds everywhere, where scuffed knees, shiners and broken bones can be unfortunate byproduct of play.
Sometimes those accidents are fatal.
On Sunday, 10-year-old Nebraskan Garrett Schomer was impaled on a metal rod sticking out from a playhouse in a neighbor's yard. The rod struck the fourth grader in the temple, according to ABC News' Omaha affiliate KETV, and he died at a local hospital of brain injuries. "I'm empty inside without my son," Trevor Schomer, the boy's father, told KETV. "My wife and I both are."
Omaha authorities quickly ruled out foul play -- the boy's death was a tragic accident during a game of tag, an age-old ritual in which the person who is "it" chases other participants and attempts to "tag" them with a hand.
Though long a rite of passage on children's playgrounds, the game has come under scrutiny in recent years as school officials question whether it might be be causing too many injuries.
The physical dangers of tag -- and the aggressive way her students play the game -- were enough to convince Robyn Hooker, principal of Kent Gardens Elementary School in McLean, Va., to curb the game, at least for now.
"This is not the old-fashioned tag, where you could use two fingers and you would be it and move on to someone else," Hooker told The Washington Post, describing a much more aggressive brand of tag her first through fifth graders like to call "jailbreak" that involves children piling on one another.
In a letter to parents, Hooker, who forwarded a message from ABC News to a district spokesman, reportedly described tag as a game of "intense aggression" and said that the number of students ending up in the nurse's office has gotten out of hand.
The school has replaced free-flowing tag with structured lesson plans overseen by physical education teachers that stress "chasing, fleeing and dodging" but limit physical contact.
The decision has drawn criticism from some parents and psychologists who say the school is making the play environment too regimented and robbing kids of a vital physical and developmental exercise … not to mention good, clean fun.
PTA Head Supports Decision
Stephanie Sullenger, the president of the Kent Gardens Parent-Teacher Association, supports Hooker's temporary policy, according to the Post. And Paul Regnier, Fairfax County school district spokesman, called Hooker's decision "perfectly acceptable."
"You have this school where kids are playing tag, but the fact is they're pushing each other," Regnier said. "We're going to have a moratorium on what they're calling tag."
But while Hooker's decision may have support from the PTA, school district administrators and some parents question the "no tag" policy, which has been introduced in a handful of school across the country along with other policies -- like banning dodgeball -- designed to keep students safe while at play.
"Pretty soon life is going to be not much fun," said Stephanie Pratola, a clinical psychologist in Virginia who specializes in children's play. "What's the message when you try to make a child's play environment so sterile, so safe? There's risk in everything."
To Pratola, the game of tag offers children many developmental lessons that are undercut when levels of structure and adult oversight are added.
"The value of children organizing their own play is incredible," she said. "Nobody ever watched me play tag. Kids got hurt and sometimes kids got their feelings hurt. Kids have to learn to tolerate frustration."
Is Risk a Bad Thing?
There have been several high-profile examples of similar tag policies in the past few years, including at schools in Massachusetts, Oregon, California and Washington state.
David Harsanyi, author of the book "Nanny State," has taken on the topic of tag bans in the past, among other critiques of what he considers overarching policymaking.
"There's this hyper-risk aversion, this idea that kids should never fall down, never get hurt," he said, adding that the possibility of a lawsuit by the parent of an injured student can also drive principals to tighten playground rules.
But to Harsanyi, decisions like Hooker's strip adolescents not only of fun but of the realities of life.
"Tag is a spontaneous kind of event," he said. "When you make it into the Department of Running Around, you're extracting any kind of enjoyment."
When Fun Morphs Into Danger
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education officially opposes dodgeball at school, specifically because the "students who are eliminated first in dodgeball are typically the ones who most need to be active," according to the organization's position paper.
Fran Cleland, NASPE president and a professor of kinesiology at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, said she could identify with Hooker's decision to temporarily halt tag.
"What is happening is these kids are taking an activity out of the context of what the game traditionally is," Cleland told ABC News.
While acknowledging that the goal is not to have everything structured by teachers, Cleland said students need guidance on the appropriate boundaries in a game of tag.
"These kids have taken it to another level," she said. "If they want to play it in a safe way, OK, but they're playing it in some sort of NFL-type of way."
Donna Thompson, the president of the National Program for Playground Safety, agreed with Cleland that kids need to be taught how to appropriately touch one another and that behavior should be supervised, but stopped short of endorsing a blanket ban of the game.
"It makes no sense for me to say 'kids can't play,'" Thompson said. "They need some time to get out and practice what they've learned in physical education."
Thompson suggests asking the teachers in charge of recess to give up their free periods, placing the blame on the educators who oversee recess rather than the children at play.
"They don't teach how to play; they go talk to each other about who got kicked off of 'Dancing with the Stars,'" Thompson said.
"So we're not going to have tag," she said. "Pretty soon we're not going to have play."