The Art of Play: Recess and the Practice of Invention

reviewed by Shifra Teitelbaum - May 29, 2014

coverTitle: The Art of Play: Recess and the Practice of Invention
Author(s): Anna Beresin
Publisher: Temple University Press, Philadelphia
ISBN: 1439910944, Pages: 202, Year: 2013
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Play is the work of childhood. It has been recognized as essential to healthy child development. Its fundamental importance is reflected in the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child, which ensures “the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities . . . and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts” (p. 150). Ginsberg (2007) agrees, contending that play offers children the opportunity to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. In these and other ways, he emphasizes, play is critical to healthy brain development.

Yet public schools are not cultivating play—and the lessons it yields for children—very much these days. In The Art of Play, Beresin documents the relationships nine elementary schools have with recess and play. In addition to being the researcher for this book, Beresin is the director of Recess Access. A service-learning project of The University of the Arts, Recess Access donates play materials to under resourced elementary schools. Beresin is trying to shift some of the paradigms about recess and free play in schools. Recess Access fosters play and art in a selection of Philadelphia public schools, and studies the impact on students and schools.

The Art of Play is a folklore study that tells the story of distributing simple play materials—jump ropes, chalk, balls and hoops—at nine elementary schools in the Philadelphia area. It describes and analyzes the cultures and practices regarding recess and free play at the schools, and their responses to the donation of these play materials. Beresin and her team observe and analyze the children’s play, and their responses to the opportunities to play. They also provide the children with paper and india ink to draw about their play.

The results are both inspiring and disturbing. The immediate, joyful response of children to the tools and the permission to play is delightful. “There is an explosion of movement, and in a few minutes the yard is a festival of activity. Jump rope, wall ball, football, catch, and dozens of children just bouncing and catching, bouncing and catching. The aide says, “I’ve been here nineteen years and I’ve never seen them look so happy” (p. 79).

The children immediately get down to the business of play: exploring what they can do with the materials, developing their skills and coordination, negotiating turn taking and sharing, and resolving the conflicts that arise in the process. The role of adults is secondary here. Beresin emphasizes “children need stimulation, and not necessarily instruction” (p. 96).

There are a host of practices that are being reinvented during play: the practice of fine and large motor skills; the practice of balance; the practice of friendship; the practice of culture; and with the practice of words, of singing, drawing, dancing, acting; the practice of design, of expansion and contraction; the practice of juxtaposition; the practice of practice. (p. 15)

Beresin captures the nuances of play with these classic materials: the varying chants that accompany jumping rope, the literal and metaphoric impermanence of drawing with chalk, the range of games and activities that can be played with different balls. She also recognizes the role of the master player. Master players may not be the most adept at the specific sport or activity, yet they manage the flow of the play, keeping the play alive. Their peers recognize their abilities, and often defer to them. “Sometimes conflicts can be settled by children with master-player status more quickly than by grown-ups” (p. 61).

Yet a number of the schools included in this study often eliminate recess. According to Beresin, “the removal of children’s playtime for punishment or “enrichment” is widespread locally and nationally” (p. 148). One school principal claimed that “kids don’t know how to play” (p. 40). Another administrator explained that recess had been eliminated for children’s safety, since the playground’s surface was rough concrete (p. 26). Play materials had been stolen in the past from many schools, so school adults were reticent to release them to the children. Schools had a range of approaches to ensuring these materials would be preserved, sometimes at the expense of them getting much use.

This is not to suggest that teachers and administrators are all spoil sports. In some schools, the “staff members are giddy with pleasure” over the donation of the play materials, and many of them are “enjoying the new materials almost as much as the children” (p. 81).

The book also includes hundreds of children’s ink drawings of their play experiences with Beresin’s materials. The value of the opportunity for children to play with art supplies and have a chance to express themselves through art is clear through Beresin’s accounts and through my own experiences using art with youth. The images add a playfulness to the text and provide another means of documenting the impact of schoolyard play on children. However, most of the images were not coded to the text, or interpreted by the researcher based on their interactions with the children, so I imagine that some of their power was lost.

Some school officials also contended that gym classes served as a substitute for recess, even if offered only once a week. Beyond the infrequency, as compared to daily recess, the nature of gym, while important for children, is distinctly different than recess and free play. One critical distinction is that “gym games were always organized by the adults” (p. 115). “It is not play if you can’t choose… play is more than a general choice of activities. Play is about a host of choices, a variety of invented moves” (p. 117). Even when adults offer students choices in gym, the process is still teacher-directed and lacks the fluidity and ambiguity that are key elements of free play.

Beresin emphasizes that there are social and emotional benefits of play for children. “A clear correlation seems to emerge: self-organized play with traditional toys decreases rough play” (p. 52). She contends that “when children are denied opportunities to express themselves, to digest their own thoughts, or to practice the realignment of their social worlds, they become depressed, agitated, or even violent” (p. 155).

With the advent of modern games and devices, from Minecraft to Wii, it’s tempting to believe that new is better, and that the old classics are obsolete. Yet despite all their bells and whistles, these new play tools are geared to more solitary or controlled play. They create fewer opportunities for serendipity, for young people to come up with new games, and negotiate new rules. They provide fewer chance encounters between young people who don’t know each other, but who are eager to get in on a game of double dutch, or who can throw a mean foul shot.

I am the director of an arts and social justice youth development program working with middle and high school youth attending Title I public schools. When we helped organize a TEDxYouth event on the theme of Jumping, it was remarkable to see the energy and enthusiasm as the youth- adolescents, both girls and boys- jumped rope. Teens challenged themselves with double dutch and shared their different jump rope chants. It was as much a social laboratory as it was a game and a physical activity.

It is tempting to think of supporting play and innovation for children in complex ways and on a grand scale. This book argues that it might be easier than we think, “that children’s physical, emotional, social, and cultural vitality may depend on a ball, a rope, and a stick of chalk” (p. 157). The Art of Play makes a strong case for the power of play, in the most fundamental, simple ways, in the lives of children, for the children, for schools, and for society.


Ginsberg, K. R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1), 182–191.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 29, 2014 ID Number: 17549, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 10:38:17 PM

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