Positive play modeled in Bolinas

David Briggs
An experiment in “positive recess”—which seeks to promote good sportsmanship—could be expanded at Bolinas School next year.

A playground game of four-square had long been a noticeable dysfunction that marred the Bolinas School. Teachers tried to figure out just what had happened during the few minutes outside, and parents warned their children to avoid the game at recess. There were minor injuries and tears. Four-square’s object is simple: to eliminate players by striking a ball from one square into another until an error is made. But in Bolinas, the activity was a game of intrigue with alliances between friends and shouting matches over where the ball landed, if it had been caught or whether the byzantine rules applied—a magnet, double hit, double bounce, cherry bomb, ultra big square, Pelé, optional Pelé or mailman, might apply. Enter Bob Demmerle, a parent who has been piloting a “Positive Teaching Recess” from 8 to 8:25 a.m. each morning by modeling inclusiveness and good sportsmanship for a few minutes and then monitoring the game to resolve conflicts. “Compare it to math class. It’s as if on the first day of school, the teacher wrote math problems on the board, left for a month and then not only wondered why they’re not getting the right answers but also gave consequences for not getting it right,” Mr. Demmerle said. “It’s the same on the playground.” When the program started, he interrupted a game in the middle of an argument and asked if the kids would rather just start a debate club. The students said that wouldn’t be any fun, so they resumed and tweaked a few rules. Previously, one student refereed at a time and faced pressure from other students, but now a team of three students huddles up and adjudicate the dispute or call for a “re-do.” Mr. Demmerle also said he tries to model being eliminated gracefully by high-fiving the player who hit the ball into his square or complimenting the kid on the “nice shot.” In a presentation to the school board last week, Mr. Demmerle asked trustees to consider a comprehensive plan with more teachers and parent volunteers who could be trained—professionally or by himself—to monitor the play stations, only two of which are currently open each morning: the grassy field, the basketball and volleyball courts, the four-square court and a space for fantasy play, among others. At least one parent wanted the school administration to provide more oversight. “The administration has him, without supervision or training, handling morning recess for children [in grades] three to eight each and every morning for the past three months,” parent Erin Leete said. “I do not consider my children an experiment.” (Mr. Demmerle acknowledged that he took the responsibility upon himself and added that parents who volunteer regularly at the school are fingerprinted.) At least 17 families wrote enthusiastic letters of support in advance of the meeting. “Over the past three months since Bob Demmerle has been using active supervision and modeling positive behavior, I’ve noticed a big change in my family’s dinner conversations,” Chou Chou Mora-Lopez, a mother to two fifth-graders, wrote. “Usually my girls would recap the day’s four-square dramas, which were quite extensive. Now, I rarely hear anything about it. A nice relief for us all!”