I recently heard a story that helped me think a little more clearly about bullying. The story was told to me by Ben, one of my co-workers. When Ben was in elementary school, he used to play touch football at recess. Every day two kids named Mike and Derrick were captains, and every day they picked the same kids in roughly the same order.
At the time, Ben believed that the order was based on skill, but really, it was about power. Mike and Derrick were the popular kids, and the popular kids got to make up the rules. A typical play involved Mike hiking the ball to himself and then throwing it to one of his friends, even if they were double-covered and Ben was wide open.
One day, Ben’s team was winning by one touchdown with only five minutes to go until the bell. Mike, who was the quarterback on the other team hiked the ball to himself, faked a pass, ran to his left, faked another pass and then started sprinting up the side of the field. Ben was the closest to him, and he gave chase.
Just before Mike reached the end zone, Ben dove and got him with both hands flat on his back. Mike got up, pushed Ben in the chest and then got up in his face. Ben stood his ground. Mike yelled that the play did not count. Ben yelled back that the play was fair and pushed Mike in the chest for emphasis. A second later they were both on the ground fighting.
When Ben reflects today on what he now refers to as “the fight”, he realizes that the way they played football and conducted recess at his school perpetuated bullying. The patterns and structure that were in place promoted a social hierarchy that allowed Mike and Derrick to call the shots. If you were Ben or any other kid, you had to either put up with those rules or go to extreme measures to challenge it.
As someone who goes around the country talking about play, I am constantly being dragged into a debate between whether kids need more freedom or more structure. When it comes to recess, however, that’s a false choice. There is always structure on a playground even if it wasn’t intentionally put there by grown ups, and that structure is what determines whether bullying is common or not. In Ben’s case, the hidden structure that was prevalent at his recess made bullying far more likely.
Of course, it didn’t have to be that way:
• What if they were playing flag football instead of touch?
• What if instead of having captains, kids picked teams by counting off?
• What if kids were already in the habit of solving disputes with a quick game of rock-paper-scissors?
• What if there was an engaged adult on the playground who knew how kids were feeling on any given day and could intervene before things got out of control?
If you go to any Playworks (www.playworks.org) school in the country, those “what ifs” are what you will actually see. When those conditions are in place, there is no room left for bullying. In a rigorous scientific study of our model in five U.S. cities, teachers at Playworks schools reported less bullying and exclusionary behavior during recess than teachers in control schools. And kids at Playworks schools were overwhelmingly positive about their experience at recess.
Bullying is a serious obstacle to learning in America’s schools, but the answer won’t be found in any anti-bullying strategy. Instead, we need solutions that are pro-social. That is, they promote healthy interactions among young people and make cooperation, empathy and teamwork habitual. Those are not just the characteristics of school without bullying. Those are the same qualities that young people need to thrive in the 21st century.
If we can create those positive conditions in all of our schools, we’ll do more than put bullying out of bounds. We’ll put success in play.
This piece originally appeared in The Creativity Post. Photo courtesy of The Creativity Post.