June 24, 2002 -- Depending on your brawn, athleticism or popularity, if you ever went to grade school you remember well your place in the playground game hierarchy.
You either desperately dodged the ball or fiercely beaned classmates with it. You were the captain of the team or the last one chosen. Or perhaps out of fear or shyness, you just blended in until the bell saved you.
For generations, recess games were considered mere child's play, even if they broke limbs occasionally or, more regularly, hurt feelings. These days, though, some educators have their sights set on some of the more potentially vicious playground activities, prompting a debate about whether banning such games is enlightened or over-protective.
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In one school in Santa Monica, Calif., the familiar game of tag is "it." The principal of Franklin Elementary School caused a ruckus when she wrote in a recent weekly school newsletter that the chase game was banned during the lunch recess of the grade school, which houses kindergarten through fifth-grade students.
Tag and similar games caused concussions, broken bones and numerous bumps and scrapes among the Franklin Elementary students in the past year. But physical danger was not the only harm cited.
"In this game, there is a 'victim' or 'It,' which creates a self-esteem issue. The oldest or biggest child usually dominates," the principal wrote.
The playground tag prohibition spurred a public debate. The Los Angeles Times picked up the story, as did at least one local talk radio show whose host lambasted the principal for her decision.
The Game of Life
The Santa Monica tag debate resembles a similar fracas the last few years over dodgeball — also known in some areas as bombardment. Concern over the game's potential for brutality and intimidation led school districts in New York, Virginia, Maryland, Maine, Ohio and Texas to ban dodgeball.
What's all the fuss about the games we have all played — and for the most part, survived?
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To their critics, dodgeball-type games unfairly pit the weak against the strong, inevitably making the scrawnier students easy prey for tougher classmates. In tag, children may be repeatedly chosen as "it" as a form of humiliation. Then there's the social rejection inevitable when children are asked to "pick teams" and the worst athletes or least popular children are left for last.
There appears to be no consensus among educators and childhood education experts about the wisdom of banning certain games from the playground, and such prohibitions are certainly not widespread.
Some say the fun of playing certain games is not worth the harm done to weaker or less popular children. "There are lots of opportunities for bullying," said Dr. Charles Shubin, a pediatrician and high school physician in Baltimore.
Those who oppose banning games say the pecking orders revealed by playground activities can teach important lessons for the future, albeit painful ones.
"Kids have to learn how to deal with everyday disappointments such as being singled out," said Dr. Kenneth Haller, a pediatrician and professor at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. "It's a cliché that games are a metaphor for life, but it's true."
Everybody Hurts Sometimes
Although it may be true that children need preparation for the dog-eat-dog adult world, Shubin says not every child will succeed in a cutthroat environment. Forcing them to compete, and more often than not, lose, will do nothing to help them cope in the future.
"Some kids are never going to make it that way, so they are just fodder for the kids who are going to make it that way," Shubin said.
Rick Swalm, an education professor at Temple University, believes in a laissez-faire organizing principle to the playground. While a potentially violent game such as dodgeball should not be part of a well-rounded physical education curriculum, he said, it can be a perfectly healthy activity for willing participants at recess.
Restricting children from planning their own activities at recess can also be damaging to their feelings of self-worth, he said. While some students may want to play hopscotch, others will still choose tougher games. And the latter will learn important lessons about winning and losing that are not in themselves, harmful, Swalm said.
"It's all in a context of 'life doesn't always deal us a royal flush,'" he said.
Keeping Fun In Sight
Experts said there are ways to continue the tradition of playing games like tag and dodgeball without permanently scarring some children. Adult supervision is key, they say.
For one, teachers can select teams, therefore eliminating the scenario of some children always being the last ones picked. In tag, Swalm said, students can be paired off in twos, so they can alternate being "it" and being on the chase. That way, no child would be "it" all the time, and no child would be left out completely.
As for dodgeball, some experts said the rough character of the game makes it beyond rehabilitation. But with adequate supervision and an emphasis on fun and not competition, others said, even that occasionally violent playground standby should be allowed.
"If one kid is throwing the ball really hard, they need to be told that. Kids need to be told what the rules of game are," Haller said. "They need to be reassured that this is a game, the goal is to have fun."