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Is This "It" for Tag?

Schools in Wyoming, Washington, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and elsewhere are making news by banning tag on their playgrounds, especially during recess. While these schools seek to make playgrounds safer for children, experts say that the teaching that goes on in physical education classes and playground supervision itself may play a greater role in allaying playground injuries. In light of the prevalence of childhood obesity, should schools limit the physical activity of kids during what is often their only "free time" for play at school? And when it comes to this classic game of chase, must it be all or nothing? Included: Views from the trenches and the benches!

"I've been teaching at College Hill Elementary for the past eight years, and for as long as I can remember, tag has always been a game that we have not allowed our students to play during our scheduled recess periods," Karla Stenzel explains. "We tell our students and parents that the reason for this is that there are too many children at varying age levels on the playground for the game to be supervised properly. What typically happens is rather than just touching someone to tag him, kids grab clothing, or grab arms, or push too hard, and someone ends up getting hurt."

With its goal of ensuring the safety of the students, the well-established no-tag playground policy hasn't been an issue for the Wichita, Kansas, school. One reason may be that the rule doesn't exclude tag in all situations. Supervised tag is permitted on school grounds under the proper conditions.

Before a Ban,
Consider This

While some schools have implemented bans on tag to protect students, complete removal of the game may not be necessary in many cases.

If your primary goal is safety, limiting tag may be the answer. Perhaps your school can rule out tag during busy recess periods but allow it during physical education classes and in single classroom activities or in large outdoor spaces with supervision.

If your greatest concern is keeping kids active to fight obesity, you may want to oust "elimination games" -- those in which students "sit out" periodically during play -- rather than specifically target tag games. There are forms of chase and flee games that do not remove players but include them in another role.

"In our physical education classes, we occasionally teach our students different types of tag games," says Stenzel, who is both a physical education curriculum coach and teacher. "Because the ratio of students to teachers under these settings is about 22-25 to 1, there is adequate supervision and definite rules have been taught."

Classroom teachers may also allow tag games during recess breaks that involve a single class of students. If students are able to play the game in a controlled setting with plenty of space and structured rules, and direct supervision, Stenzel feels that tag can be a fun and invigorating activity for kids.

"Most school districts have policies that address playground supervision issues such as teacher/student ratios, and those are typically larger ratios than in a classroom setting," she said. "In these recess periods, students are permitted to participate in free play activities. There are different grade levels on a playground at the same time, and with big and little bodies all moving around together, safety is the biggest issue."


While most educators agree that safety is a primary goal, are schools that ban tag to protect students and reduce injuries -- and the resulting potential legal action -- being overly cautious?

"Almost any movement skill, sport, game, dance, exercise, or outdoor activity can be beneficial to children -- and safe -- if taught and supervised appropriately," Craig Buschner, president of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) told Education World.

Buschner suggests that the question of whether or not to remove tag from the playground really involves two overlapping issues: the endorsement of elimination games in general and the development of important motor skills like running, chasing, fleeing, dodging, leaping, and galloping, within the physical education class.

"Tag games are not inherently bad," Buschner stated. "Much like any appropriate learning activity, teachers must modify rules, select appropriate boundaries and equipment, and make sure pupils are safe. Teachers should emphasize tag games that develop self-improvement, participation, fair play, and cooperation."

The NASPE makes a distinction between games that include removal of players for periods to time and those that do not. It opposes true "elimination games" of any kind. The organization credits the lack of physical activity and physical education for children in large part for the obesity crisis in the United States.

"It makes little sense to eliminate children from games when we need to be encouraging moderate to vigorous activity for a minimum of 60 minutes every day of the week," shared Buschner. "The children who are eliminated are very often the least fit and motorically skilled. Mindful teachers will plan game lessons to keep all children physically moving."

Tag: One Player
In a Larger Game

Craig Buschner of the NASPE advises schools not to give up when it comes to recess or promoting physical activity among children through games like tag.

School systems need to examine the value of recess and its potential to enhance the health of children. Buschner suggests that schools perform a self-study of recess and organize it as a relevant part of the school day.

"It will take some thought and the development of a new recess paradigm," he adds. "Administrators, teachers, and parents must believe that it's more than a 'break from academics.' There are studies that support that recess helps with concentration in the classroom. Moreover, recess should not be a reward; it should be a necessary daily component of a child's education."

Furthermore, tag games require the development of motor skills that the NASPE says should be taught to children in physical education class and are the precursors for sports, games, dance, and exercise that a child can carry into adulthood. Ideally, if the essential motor skills and game skills and knowledge for tag are taught and learned in physical education classes, there shouldn't be a problem with application of this learning in a recess setting, Buschner believes.

"We want children to take what they learn in physical education class and apply it during recess, before and after school, on weekends and during vacations," he added. "This would be the same for any motor skill, jump rope activity, exercise, dance, or sporting activity."

The NASPE also advocates the merits of recess because it provides youth with additional opportunities for physical activity beyond the physical education class, but when schools rely on several teachers to supervise great numbers of children on a playground during recess, the resulting issues can be blamed on specific physical activities like tag.

"When recess conditions include the following: inadequate rules; infrequent enforcement of rules, minimal supervision, insufficient space and equipment; and too many children standing around [lack of opportunity], problems often occur," Buschner observed. "School systems around the United States have banned both recess and certain physical activities such as tag because of the potential for lawsuits. This seems to be an easy solution; however, it sends mixed messages to youth, parents, and the public."


"I would argue that school administrators who have banned tag because of the potential injury to the child are very misdirected in their thinking," says Rhonda Clements, Ed.D. "We are reaching an epidemic of childhood obesity in the U.S., and we should not quash the child's natural desire to play vigorously with peers. For many children, the playground setting offers their only chance for daily physical activity."

Sitting quietly and chatting with a playmate under a tree is no substitute for activities that increase a child's level of cardiovascular fitness, suggests Clements, a professor of education at Manhattanville College. In ruling out tag, adults convey that they don't trust elementary students to get along and play safely with friends, she says, which stands in opposition to the belief that the real goal of education is to foster independent and creative thinkers.


"Play" Plays a
Role in Learning

Just as adults seek breaks in their days in the form of friendly tennis matches, workout sessions, or rounds of golf, happiness and free time are important to the learning process of children, says Rhonda Clements.

"Perhaps most important, we should listen to the words of a fourth grade student who was recently told that he could no longer play tag during recess," she advised. "With his chin on his chest he simply said, 'They don't want us to have any fun.'"

"Tag offers children the opportunity to release stress, move in vigorous ways, and increase their level of physical fitness," Clements advises. "It is the oldest game on the planet, dating back to early man when the object was to pass on the evil It spirit. This childhood game allows children the opportunity to dart, dash, scatter, and evade opponents, which are necessary skills in many adult sports. Since the rules are simple, it also allows for less skilled children to freely participate."

Clements notes that in most variations of the game, players are only eliminated for a brief period that serves to re-energize them for their return. She points out that most popular children's games -- kickball, wiffleball, tag, and other chase and flee games -- have been in existence for many years and were played by earlier generations. They are often perfect for after-school play because they don't require expensive equipment.

"Children tend to dash in and out of games based on their own motivation and decision-making when left alone to play with peer groups," explained Clements. "A simple observation of children's play clearly shows that rules and roles are frequently changed, children move on to different games with different playmates, and play is interrupted numerous times as problems are solved through kid-like discussions. Adults tend to overly structure physical play activities, not children."

In fact, Clements believes that adults who exert too much control over a child's play are robbing the child of valuable opportunities to work through play episodes with friends and learn how to negotiate rules. Child-initiated play activities provide a sense of freedom and joy.

"All schools need to reconsider the importance of providing a space where students can release energy, yell loudly, and cheer on their best friends in whatever kid-like fashion suits their level of development," added Clements. "This play space should be filled with playground balls, jump ropes, Frisbees, and plastic equipment that sparks the child's desire to move and be active. The child needs to escape the confinements of the classroom and to be active during the school day in order to return and refocus on academics."

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2008 Education World

Originally published 10/08/2007
Last updated 09/24/2008