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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 8

Play Fair—And Not Just at Recess

Adults provide the structures that allow students to welcome new students, succeed on spelling tests, and make the playground user-friendly.

Murals entitled "We Are a Community" and "What We Have in Common," as well as photographs of all students and teachers in the school, greet us as we enter this elementary school (a composite of several in Rhode Island). We see a bulletin board depicting community resources, such as the YMCA, health clinic, police, and the community center.
At the Peer Partnership Center, students meet with peer tutors, buddies, and welcome wagon volunteers. Everywhere we see parents assisting, instructing, and translating school communications into parent-friendly language. New Student Support Group members escort new students through the school and share a student-created brochure and video.
Through the Community Interviewing Project, students interview people in the local community. Teachers participate in a support group to discuss classroom stress. A student with Tourette's syndrome leads a discussion on his disability with his peers. Students in a Procrastinator's Support Group work to keep one another on the task of writing compositions for English class. In another group, students brainstorm ways they can ensure that everyone achieves at least 90-percent accuracy on a spelling test. On the playground, a student Play Fair Squad monitors noncompetitive games.
You will notice that many of these structures are student driven. In our work with many schools—through the Rhode Island Department of Education's Office of Special Needs—we have found that most students have the potential and the desire to help and be helped. The support for achievement and self-esteem that students can give one another is universally available and free, but is a vastly underused resource. As adults, we often need only provide the structure and facilitation.

Facilitating Community

At the Hugh Cole School, an economically diverse school in Warren, Rhode Island, we were in on the beginnings of a new school community. We were invited there to assist the staff with team building. When we suggested that this school, known for its inclusiveness, was "not a community yet," we were met with some hard stares.
"We don't need one more thing to do!" was a common plea, as well as "We're here to teach! We're not social workers!"
A survey of students' perceptions of their own school, however, revealed some urgent needs. Many students saw the atmosphere as unsafe, uncomfortable, divisive, and nonwelcoming. They were confused about what they could do to create a more congenial environment. When asked, "Do you want to?" there was a resounding chorus of "Yes!" Here is the course that we took.
Students in grades 4-6 participated in a series of courses on communication, cooperation, affirmation, and peer helping. In each class, students experienced and then practiced positive social skills.
In our instruction, we followed this principle: To facilitate community, one must ask questions rather than make statements. Questioning encourages community members to hold dialogues on important issues and come up with their own solutions. We offered suggestions and guidance only after students voiced their own opinions.
One day, we asked students what they thought about recess. They identified many problems, including bullying, exclusion from games, teasing, and conflicts resulting from competitive games. We asked students whether they would like to try to make recess more fun, less conflictive, and more inclusive—and, at the same time, improve the school social environment generally. They were interested, and we suggested Play Fair, a community structure that promotes inclusion and noncompetitive play. Students and teachers decided to give it a try.

What Is Play Fair?

Play Fair is a simple yet very rich structure. For recess, we sectioned off an area of the playground with cones and designated it as the Play Fair area. The games played in that area are noncompetitive (see boxes on this page and p. 55). Every day before recess, that day's Play Fair squad of five or six trained students chooses the games. No students are required to play, but squad members invite students who are alone or who seem to have nothing to do. The squad also monitors the games, making sure the games remain noncompetitive or reminding students of the rules.

Playing Fair Games

With a bow to the New Games movement, here are some Play Fair games:

  • "Everyone's It!" Everyone really is "it." If you are tagged (on the shoulders), you "freeze." If the "De-Icer" tags you (one "De-Icer" per 10 players), you're on the run again. The game ends when you want it to.

  • "Octopus." The "Octopus," in the center of a big circle, calls, "Come on, fish, swim in my ocean." The horde "swims" fast through the "water," and the Octopus chases and "hooks" (taps on the shoulder) as many as possible. Now the fish become "tentacles," who can tag but not move. As the sea fills up with tentacles, fish have a hard time swimming—but have to keep moving, on call. Who'll be the last one caught?

  • "Invented Games." Tell students: "Here's a sheet and a foam ball. Invent a game for eight that is fast and includes everyone." Or "Reinvent a regular soccer game so that everyone can play—rookies and kids in wheelchairs."


Squad members do not resolve conflicts between students but refer any problems to the adults on duty. Play Fair is not intended to replace competitive play; students are free to choose games outside the Play Fair area.

Resources for Noncompetitive Games

Educators for Social Responsibility, 23 Garden St., Cambridge, MA 02138; 1-800-370-2515. National, nonprofit organization provides access to books and other resources on noncompetitive games and educational activities to promote social responsibility.

Family Pastimes: Makers and Distributors of Cooperative Games, RR4, Perth, Ontario, Canada K7H 3C4.

Flaghouse Corporation, 150 N. MacQuesten Pkwy., Mt. Vernon, NY 10550; 1-800-793-7900. Catalogs for Regular and Special Populations (ages 8-adult) include equipment for noncompetitive games, such as foam balls, geodesic balls, hoops, parachutes, and Earth balls.

Project Adventure, P.O. Box 100, Hamilton, MA 01936; 617-468-7981. Provides workshops and publishes resources such as Silver Bullets, A Guide to Initiative Problems, Adventure Games, and Trust Activities (1984) and Cowstalls and Cobras II: A Guide to Games, Initiatives, Ropes Courses, and Adventure Curriculum (1989), both by Kari Rohnke.

Worldwide Games, P.O. Box 517, Colchester, CT 0615-0517; 1-800-888-0987. Catalogue of games for all ages.


Play Fair Preparation

To begin building Play Fair, we invited students to apply for Play Fair training. A staff member at the school volunteered to be the adult supervisor/coordinator. The 30 students selected represented a range of social styles and behaviors and included students seen as aggressive, passive, assertive, and socially skilled. We provided these students with one day of training in noncompetitive games and communication skills to foster inclusion.
We then formed five squads of six students each. The squads made brief presentations to all classes to elicit support for Play Fair. We rotated the scheduling so that a different squad and supervisor were on duty each day of the week.
During and after training, we nurtured the children's sense of ownership by encouraging their participation in decision making. For instance, we asked the squad members how they would share leadership on the squads and what they would do if more people wanted to play than they could handle.

Profound Change Is Possible

We found that when teachers skillfully orchestrate students' participation—on the playground as well as in academic classes—responsibility and creativity flourish. The influence of Play Fair on the playground at Hugh Cole School has been profound. First, Play Fair has been immensely popular. The majority of students participate regularly, leaving competitive games to those who may be particularly skilled or for whom the struggle for victory is indispensable.
Second, problem behavior between students in the participating grade levels has decreased significantly. And the effects extend into the classroom.
Third, squad members who once were bullies are now active in making sure that children formerly on the sidelines are drawn into the games. One such boy says, "It's really great because now no one's left out."
The school counselor says,I've spent years working with kids alone, isolating them to talk to them. This approach [Play Fair] is wonderful because it's kids helping kids. Everyone's involved.
There are still children who bully, but they are now a small group. A different community structure may be required to engage them positively.

The Rewards of Sharing Power

Teachers at Hugh Cole had to make a difficult change: They had to allow their students to make decisions that would affect whole grade levels. They had to give over some of their power. In so doing, however, they experienced great rewards. Teachers who had initially complained that they already had too much to do, ended up saying things like "Having a classroom that is a community saves time and energy in the long run by preventing problems before they begin." One teacher stated:I used to think that getting kids to be responsible required some huge psychological breakthrough. Now I realize that it's skills, and anyone can learn skills. That's what we teachers are good at—teaching skills.
We found that it is not enough to hold workshops in social skills or conflict resolution. We must provide and nurture ongoing, student-driven structures, such as Play Fair, so that students can put their latent good will into action and care for one another. This caring—and the comfort and belonging it provides for all students—is perhaps the most underused resource in schools today. When we have the courage to unleash our power for caring, our school communities can become places in which students and adults learn how to live together.

Mark Chuoke has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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