Recess Battles

Recess Battles: Playing, Fighting, and Storytelling

Anna R. Beresin
Foreword by Brian Sutton-Smith
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 144
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  • Book Info
    Recess Battles
    Book Description:

    As children wrestle with culture through their games, recess itself has become a battleground for the control of children's time. Based on dozens of interviews and the observation of over a thousand children in a racially integrated, working-class public school, Recess Battles is a moving reflection of urban childhood at the turn of the millennium. The book debunks myths about recess violence and challenges the notion that schoolyard play is a waste of time. The author videotaped and recorded children of the Mill School in Philadelphia from 1991 to 2004 and asked them to offer comments as they watched themselves at play. These sessions in Recess Battles raise questions about adult power and the changing frames of class, race, ethnicity, and gender. The grown-ups' clear misunderstanding of the complexity of children's play is contrasted with the richness of the children's folk traditions.Recess Battles is an ethnographic study of lighthearted games, a celebratory presentation of children's folklore and its conflicts, and a philosophical text concerning the ironies of everyday childhood. Rooted in video micro-ethnography and the traditions of theorists such as Bourdieu, Willis, and Bateson, Recess Battles is written for a lay audience with extensive academic footnotes. International scholar Dr. Brian Sutton-Smith contributes a foreword, and the children themselves illustrate the text with black and white paintings.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-740-0
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)

    Anna Beresin’s analysis of the play life of children on the playground is a bit like reading about the Marxist revolution or even more powerfully about seeing the proletariat fighting for its rights while being slaughtered by the governing classes. In my thirty years as a university doctoral supervisor in psychology, education, and folklore, I have seldom if ever seen such a massive collection of data regarding what children are trying to do for themselves as human beings within their playgrounds and how teachers and other authorities are trying to interfere in the process.

    This book is an earthshaking anthropology...

    (pp. xi-2)
  5. INTRODUCTION Tensions in an Urban American School Yard
    (pp. 3-14)

    Classic signs of an active children’s culture are all over the Mill School yard.¹ Chalk games are not allowed, but painted graffiti ebbs and flows like waves on the freshly repainted school walls. Shoes dangle from the telephone wires above the iron fence. Balls bounce off walls, rocks are thrown onto hopscotches, and singing games can be heard above the din of laughter and screaming. Every nook and cranny of this school yard is used for some kind of play, from the lone tree that becomes a base for chasing games to the sand from the graffiti-removing power wash—voices,...


      (pp. 17-26)

      Mr. Rumble, an energetic, middle-aged white man, wore professional clothes and sparkled with the energy of someone who was confident in his role as principal. He welcomed me as a fellow professional and became nostalgic for his graduate school days. A man in transition, he allowed me complete access to the school for research purposes. I observed not only the school yard but the cafeteria, the gym, the evening holiday performances, and the third-, fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade classrooms, and hung out in the teachers’ lounge. Eventually I was allowed to videotape—with parental permission—from the school’s second-floor window...

      (pp. 27-38)

      The children soon realized that they were allowed to say anything in my presence. The fourth-grade boys particularly enjoyed saying curse words and uncensored versions of popular raps into my microphone. Aisha, an expert rope jumper in the generation before Tashi, thought I was a homeless lady—not, she quickly added, because of the way I dressed. In her neighborhood, a woman who is a constant fixture and not getting anyone in trouble is usually just homeless. Some children thought I was some kind of undercover narcotics officer. Others thought I was a news reporter. One thought I was Joey’s...


    • 3 THE GROWN-UPS GIVETH, THE GROWN-UPS TAKETH AWAY Misunderstanding Gendered Play
      (pp. 41-62)

      In 1992, Mikee Cohen, a popular, pale-faced ten-year-old with dark eyes, was an expert in handball. He heard that I was interviewing children during recess time to ask about their school yard games. He followed me one morning and began to interview me:

      Mikee: Where are you from?

      (Do you mean what planet?)

      Mikee: I know you are from Earth, but really, are you from Israel or someplace?

      (No, I grew up in New York, but I live in Philadelphia in Northtown.)

      Mikee: I’m from Easttown.

      (Oh, I know Easttown, I’ve visited people there.)

      Mikee: Do you know Mikee Cohen?...

    • 4 “NIKE, NIKE, WHO CAN DO THE NIKE?” New Commercialization and Scripted Exploitation
      (pp. 63-76)

      At the Mill School,ropealmost always meant double-dutch jump rope. A rich African American street tradition, rope links children to each other and to moves and phrases absorbed as common culture. Two players turn two long ropes (or one laundry line doubled over) and rhythmically rotate them eggbeater style. The jumper must skillfully leap in between as the two ropes beat their rhythm, pit pat pit pat, and execute a number of specific steps without getting tangled.

      In 1991, double-dutch jump rope at the Mill School yard was a game solely for African American working-class girls. The players had...

      (pp. 77-86)

      The school yard is tense at times: “They always beat us [to the door].” “I’m first, first.” “Second!” “What time is it? Third!” “Aw, I’m gonna be last.” “You got to call it.” “You got to call it quick.”



      Places erases!

      No, reverse it down.

      Ace, ace, first, second.

      Ace, ace, got no higher.

      I called it.

      She called it.

      Ace, ace.

      Yes, she did.

      The tension and the race to play are most visible at the times of transition, between the ringing of the bell and the reentry to school. As the frames push and pull, the...


    • 6 “WORK THAT BODY, ODDY, ODDY” Lessons from “Old School” Rhymes
      (pp. 89-114)

      Traditions serve as a form of advocacy. In 2004, Tashi eyed me with her brown doe eyes, stood up a little taller, and marked her steps in place as she sang her favorite rope games without a rope: the one the school provided was too short, too stiff, and unusable for double-dutch. She sang loudly and strongly: “Big Mac,” “Nike,” and “Eedie, Idie Odie, Here Comes the Teacher with a Big Fat Stick.” “What else is sung now?” I asked. “Do you know the ones the older kids used to sing?”

      Pac man came on tardy

      And Toya had a...

      (pp. 115-126)

      My initial study of the Mill School was never intended to be longitudinal, but I kept going back. After starting out as a study of ethnic diversity, my project shifted to focus on culture change. Like most folklorists, I sought to examine the uniqueness of the location and the variants that could be recorded—the songs, the stories, the moves. I was curious about how the children negotiated spatially across the concrete grid in the shadow of schooling. I remained interested in viewing play as a kind of communicative negotiation, an alternative and much more amusing window into childhood than...

      (pp. 127-134)

      Theorists have been fighting over what play is and is not as educators dispute what is or is not a worthwhile activity for children. For years, writers have argued that we do not know quite what play is, but we all recognize it when we see it.¹ Sadly, this is not the case.

      But documentation—film, audio, painting, and even recollection—can help grown-ups remember what play is about. Although strong disagreement exists about what play does biologically, socially, and emotionally for children, its characteristics are indeed recognizable:

      - it is associated with quick, darting movements;²

      - it is doubly...

  9. CONCLUSION Wrestling with the School Yard
    (pp. 135-140)

    When the Mill School’s teachers saw the videos of their school yard, several remarked that the children “were just being good for the camera.” After I assured the teachers that the children were just as busy and kind-spirited when the camera was obscured from view, they became nostalgic about childhood and curious about what the children were singing—whether the songs were the same as the ones the teachers had sung in their youth. What was old, they asked, and what was new? Does recess matter?

    Grown-ups are experiencing a crisis of misunderstanding regarding children’s play. If it does not...

  10. POSTSCRIPT Screaming Culture
    (pp. 141-143)

    December 9, 2004. I am back at the Mill School with new paintbrushes, india ink, and reams of paper. When I tell Ms. Headley’s third-grade class that we will be doing art together, they say, “With paints?” When I answer “Yes,” they wiggle and giggle and ooh and ahh. Ms. Headley has already somberly escorted them from the auditorium, coaxed them to use the bathroom, and inspected to make sure they are wearing their uniforms. She is the only teacher who has remained at the Mill School since I began the study in 1991.

    The children are so hungry for...

    (pp. 144-145)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 146-152)
    (pp. 153-163)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 164-168)