I have been in middle school now for about 12 years. Before that I was in high school for about 10 years. Now, you might say that I was working in a middle and high school, but I maintain that when I “live” with middle school students (or high school) I feel as if I am one of them. I feel their accomplishments and their pain. I imagine what it is like to be in their shoes. Each day I enter school with the same butterflies they feel, and the same worries on my mind. As a middle schooler I often worry about recess and lunch. Recess and lunch, you might ask?!?! We typically think that when we ask students what their favorite subject in school is, they respond, “Lunch and recess.” However, that is not the case for a number of middle schoolers. Some dread those times of day, as they look around the room, searching for someone to with whom to sit and someone who will include him/her in a game.
Natalie Hampton, a sixteen year old in California, developed an app called “Sit With Us” to help students find students with whom to sit during lunch. Natalie shared that she created this app because she spent most of her seventh grade year sitting alone at lunch. She suffered from depression and stress, and shared that, “When I walked into a classroom, I was planning an escape route.” The app also searches for those who are “happy and willing to invite anyone to join the lunch table. Users can designate themselves as “ambassadors” who can create “open lunches” and invite others to join. And, because it is on the phone, it is private, and no one need feel like a “loser” for using the app.
Then there’s ten year old Christian Bucks. When his family was thinking of moving to Germany he was worried about making friends. A school he looked at had a solution called the “buddy bench.” If a child was sitting on that bench alone during recess it was a sign that other children should ask him to play. Christian’s family never moved to Germany, but he introduced the “buddy bench” to his school in America. There are now over 2,000 schools with buddy benches in the United States.
For a child who is feeling as if he hasn’t found his place, recess can be a very lonely time of day. Research indicates the importance of recess for academic/cognitive and physical benefits. The physical benefits are obvious. The American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement on Recess highlights the cognitive benefits of recess by stating that in order for children to process that which they have learned in class, they need time for “cognitive processing” which needs “a period of interruption after a period of concentrated instruction.” Recess actually makes children more attentive in class- even if there is no physical activity and they just socialize with friends.
We often forget the social and emotional benefits of recess as well. At recess they “practice and role play essential social skills...communication skills, including negotiation, cooperation, sharing and problems solving as well as coping skills, such as perseverance and self-control.”
But, what about the children who struggle with those skills? The children who go outside to recess and stay on the side by themselves? And, the children who prefer to play games on their iPads instead of interacting with others? This is where the idea of “structured recess” comes in. Providing programming during recess allows for children who may have a hard time during this unstructured time. Research by Stanford University in The Journal of School Health demonstrates that a recess program can help children feel more engaged, safer and more positive about school. It is a “critical contributor to positive school climate.”
I am proud to say that in the past few years we have made some progress in the middle school in this area. This year, we have embarked on a more ambitious effort to provide structured activities DAILY for those who wish. Our Middle School Recess Program contains: a. A daily game room with mini hockey, foosball, nock hockey and assorted board games, b. Basketball leagues for sixth (Tuesday/ Thursday) and seventh grade (Monday/Wednesday), Thursday c. Zumba each Thursday d. Baking for sixth grade e. Makerspace daily f. An art component still being developed.
The other adults in the building have been wondering why I have felt so passionate about making this happen. It is simple. I am in middle school too. I know what it is like to enter a room and not know who to talk to. I know what it is like to not be sure which table to choose- where will I feel comfortable? I know what it is like to feel anxious about what to do at recess- especially if I am not athletic. And, so, we needed to make this structured recess program happen. For middle schoolers like me.
(Parents often wonder, if my child likes being alone, is my child lonely? What if he prefers to be by himself? At home, this might be the middle schooler who enjoys reading, art, or just watching TV, while his siblings have sleepovers or are going to the movies and making plans. There are children who are “home bodies.” I think the first piece is to ascertain whether the child is unhappy- through speaking with him. There are some children who won’t reveal their true feelings. How does he feel about hanging out at home? You want to find out if his being alone is happening at school as well. “What did you do at recess today?” “Who are you sitting next to at lunch?” Again, sometimes you can get some information. Reaching out to the school is a good idea as well to find out whether he seems alone in school or is hanging out with the rest of the students.
On one hand, children have different personalities and some are happy to be relaxing at home without Saturday night plans. On the other hand, if the feedback from school is consistent with the fact that he is alone in school all the time, despite his being content, he is missing out on learning and practicing the social skills needed for interacting with others. In that case, the parent can encourage some invitations. That might need to start slow with an activity like bowling or a movie, where not a lot of talking is demanded).
It says in Bereishit 2:18, “ לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂה־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ” "It is not good for man to be alone; I shall make him a helpmate opposite him." It is the only thing in the Torah described as “not good”- being alone. There is nothing more painful than the feeling of being alone. Rav Binny Freedman points out that in Parashat Vayishlach 32:25 it describes the pain of Yaakov as, “וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ” “And, Yaakov was left all alone.” That is when he struggled with the angel. Rav Soloveitchik, z”l, points out that the identity of this man that he struggles with is kept mysterious, as it is meant to be Yaakov himself.
When we feel lonely, and we struggle within ourselves- wondering why no one wants to be with us, it is a miserable feeling. This feeling is magnified during the pre-adolescent and adolescent stages when children are searching for themselves and dependent on peers and friendships to define them. As adults, our primary role is to help them discover themselves, to realize how wonderful they are and to develop that self-esteem so that they can stop struggling within themselves. However, our job is also to make for them an עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ. First, to stress to our other students their obligation to reach out to someone who has not been included and be their עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ. We should all have that conversation with our children at home. And, that is also what our recess programming is all about- helping them find that עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ. That is our recess duty.
Sixth Grade- Students learned to use google classroom as a time management tool.
Seventh Grade- Students debriefed the Frost Valley experience and heard a presentation by Mr. Jeff Slater from the Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center to introduce the students to the homeless shelter they will be visiting as part of their unit on empathy.
Eighth Grade- Students discussed the phenomenon of test anxiety and why tests do not define them, in preparation for the PSAT exam this week.