Bullying has been in the headlines recently, and the playground is a place that this aggressive behavior can become a problem. Former minor league baseball player and University of Connecticut’s all-time hit leader Todd Rosenthal teaches kids social and athletic skills in the New York City area and was concerned by what he saw.
“There was a lot of basics that people were missing, and it was causing arguments, certain people to feel ostracized and also allowing the bullies to have too much power and say in these situations,” says Rosenthal by phone from his home in Manhattan.
These experiences inspired Rosenthal to write the book The Playground Playbook as a basic guide for kids to get the most out of group play and build self-esteem at the same time. The easy-to-read illustrated book simplifies what Rosenthal refers to as the “big three tool kit”: basic rules, boundaries and objects of the game. Rosenthal also divides players into three categories: rookies, veterans and leaders. For the rookie who might be shy or physically awkward and thus a potential victim of bullying, learning how the games work is one way to deal with adversity and get something positive out of it.
“We want to take the bully out of the playground, but the reality is there is always going to be a little bit of a hierarchy. So the kid who is getting ostracized or harassed has to understand you can’t take it all personally. You’re going to run into some people yelling ‘What are you doing out there?’ Part of it will be your responsibility to go into the game a little better equipped,” says Rosenthal.
Besides knowing the rules, the book recommends practice for potential bullying victims and even simply leaving the group and starting a new game. Rosenthal says the book can also help the more dominant kids learn to deal with those who are new to the game.
“The bullies or the kids who are a little harsher on the others need to understand that not everyone is as advanced or experienced as they are, so they have to not only incorporate them but be a little more understanding as they learn as they go,” says Rosenthal.
These best practices are being used by school administrators, including at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital (JPDS) in Washington, D.C.
“For us the playground is like an outdoor classroom,” says head of school Naomi Reem. “Everything that happens in the playground is as important as and sometimes even more important than what happens in the classroom in terms of the social and emotional development of the student.” The objective is to develop skills in order to foster a more inclusive and collaborative environment on the playground.
JPDS guidance counselor Alexis Herschtal says that a couple of years ago, playground and recess expert Curt Hinson, who wrote the book 6-Steps to a Trouble-free Playground, trained the school’s staff in the philosophy of collaborative and inclusive play.
Some of the techniques JPDS uses includes breaking up games that are too large so kids get more playing time; teaching games that are more collaborative than competitive; teaching children conflict resolution; having counselors intervene at times to ensure that everyone is included; and involving teachers more in recess time.
“It really can make or break your day, your week, if recess isn’t fun and you are feeling left out and lonely. We recognize that it’s going to take a toll on your overall sense of confidence at school. How you feel about yourself. How you feel as a student,” says Herschtal. “We realize that your social and emotional health is directly connected to your success academically, so we take all of those pieces quite seriously.”