“We Don’t Play”

June 9, 2024
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Ever since I was 5 years old, I have been part of schools.. I followed my three older brothers to a one-hallway Catholic elementary school that started with kindergarten on one end, and each year you worked your way up the hall until you walked out the end, having completed 8th grade. I can remember that school feeling giant as a little boy, but having returned, I literally could not believe how small it was.

You see, ever since then, I have walked in and out of literally hundreds of different schools across the globe. I am fascinated by school culture as I recognize how significant an impact it can have on a young person’s life. This struck me recently when touring different schools we were considering for our programming.

One of the schools we have been working with for a few years is Breakthrough Magnet School South in Hartford, Connecticut. The culture there is so clear that kids are encouraged to positively interact with the adults. They are greeted warmly by everyone—from the principal to the security officers, the custodian, and the front office staff. Literally, everyone welcomes you, says good morning, and makes you feel a part of their community as soon as you arrive.

Instead of the signs I’ve seen in many places saying “Don’t run in the hallways,” their entire hallway is a sensory pathway that encourages movement, whether that be skipping, hopping, leaping, or even “crab crawling”. Along the way, you see gardens and outside areas for movement. Not ironically, the sensory pathway ends at their gymnasium, where you will often find kids engaged in free play.   Here is video I took of walking their hallway just to give you a sense.

What kid wouldn’t be encouraged to move if they saw this every day!!

This experience is in stark contrast to a school we visited earlier this year in a different region, where quite the opposite happens. After a long wait requesting permission to enter the building from a buzzer system that makes you feel like you are entering the back of a scary movie set, we were asked, “What do you want?” instead of “Welcome, how can I help?” Once we were buzzed in, the receptionist did not acknowledge that we were waiting and eventually said, “Who are you here to see?” When we explained that we were here to tour the school as we may be considering bringing our programming, the response was the same, “Who are you here to see?” When we explained we had scheduled an appointment with an administrator, we were told they were not available. “Let me see who I can find to give you a tour.”

After about 10 minutes, a staff member arrived saying, “I was told I have to show you around,” and then turned their back to us as if to say, “Go ahead and follow me if you have to.” The facility was actually beautiful. In fact, in many ways, it rivaled Breakthrough South from an objective viewpoint. But despite some natural light that filtered in through wonderful architecture, it just did not feel as warm. What became very clear was that there was very little hanging on the walls of the hallway, and there was no such thing as a sensory pathway here.

When I asked the guide why there was nothing on the wall, she said, “Because the kids will just tear it down.” She then added, “In fact, if a child is caught touching a hallway wall, they get sent to the main office.” When I inquired as to why that would deem such a punishment, she turned around and sharply said, “We don’t play!”

If that could not have been more poignant, I don’t know what could have been. The difference between a school that says, through the way it greets everyone and encourages movement, “We encourage play,” and another school whose physical structures and staff mandates scream, “We don’t play,” made me incredibly sad to realize the different experiences that kids have based on school culture.

I think many of us, when we look back on our elementary school experiences, probably remember two things: 1. A favorite teacher and 2. Recess. In fact, recess can be one of our most formative experiences. It’s where we learn to make friends, resolve conflict, take risks, and be an ally or stand up to the bully. Depending on your school culture, that experience can be a positive or negative one. But, giving kids opportunities for play is giving them opportunities to learn, develop leadership, deal with adversity and, ultimately, hopefully feel connected.

It’s my hope that through our work, as we become part of school cultures in different local communities around the globe, we can positively impact this experience. We love being part of Breakthrough South, but their culture was already strong before we got there. We are simply now a part of that great culture.

It’s our hope as we go into these new schools that we can move the needle and help people see that children playing will actually improve their behavior and enhance the experience of everyone involved in the school—from the custodian to the front office staff, to the security officer, to the parents, and to those who are visiting.

Let’s move from a “we don’t play” mentality to celebrating a “we do play” culture.

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About Steve Boyle

Steve Boyle is a visionary leader and advocate for youth sports and physical literacy. As the Executive Director of 2-4-1 CARE, Inc. and Co-Founder/Director of 2-4-1 Sports, Steve stands at the forefront of the movement to transform the youth sports paradigm. His forward-thinking anti-specialization approach has garnered acclaim from esteemed institutions like the Aspen Institute. At the helm of 2-4-1, Steve has skillfully guided its expansion from its flagship location in West Hartford, Connecticut, to a range of locations across the U.S., Canada, and Africa. His leadership has not only scaled the program but also redefined the standards of youth sports Beyond the scope of 2-4-1 Sports, Steve’s influence extended to developing the National Association of Physical Literacy, where his insights as Advisory Board Chair were pivotal. His tenure as Global Lead on Physical Literacy and Athletics for Whittle School & Studios marked a significant contribution to the global community, shaping the athletic and physical education frameworks across campuses in Shenzhen and Washington, D.C. Steve is equally known for merging his expertise in counseling with his coaching acumen to create the TOP Self social-emotional learning platform. This innovative endeavor leverages sports to impart essential social-emotional learning skills, cementing Steve’s status as a national authority in physical literacy development.

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