Let’s Observe Them in Their Natural Habitat

If you’re a writer, or an anthropologist, it’s hard to find a better environment to further your research than the elementary school playground.

At C’s school, they offer lunch recess in addition to a longer, regular recess.  It allows the 3rd, 4th and 5th graders to run around for about 15 minutes after they finish eating lunch, and it’s completely dependent upon parent volunteers.  Yesterday was my third time to volunteer.  Our school is pretty interesting in that the kids are really well-behaved. It’s a little eerie, actually. Like, they’re absolutely silent in the halls. They always say thank you. They sit in an orderly fashion in the cafeteria.

But on the playground, it’s a slightly different beast. The kids let loose a little bit and the natural hierarchy is revealed. It’s always fun to be a fly on the wall.  If you populated the Lord of The Flies island with Stepford children, you’d have a pretty close approximation of what lunch recess looks like; the veneer of semi-privileged upbringing is peeled away a little bit, but no one’s throwing rocks at each other. (Maybe it was just my school where stuff like that happened.)

I think the most interesting group to watch is the 5th grade class. Half of the girls are developing figures, while all the boys (except one) still look and act like little boys. Some of the girls split off into small groups that floated around the playground, whispering and alternately giggling at and looking disdainful of the boys they encountered. The boys had zero idea they were being observed, as they were too busy running around playing sports or tag.

The rest of the girls were playing sports with the boys, and dang – they’re good! I watched a group of about a dozen mostly Indian kids playing basketball, and was impressed that the girls were holding their own against the boys. They were willing to get physical, played great defense, and were pretty good shots. I had to turn around to keep from visibly laughing, though, when an argument broke out over a rule. The boys flapped their arms wildly in indignation and hollered completely logical arguments about why they were right (they were) but the girls simply crossed their arms and said, “No.”

Argument over. The boys dropped their flailing arms, sighed, and got back to the game.  Girls be scary!

The hilarity (for me) continued when the game ended and the girls drifted away.  But then? Oh, then! Then the story changed.  The boys strutted around shooting baskets and expressing their disbelief that the girls could be so stupid about the rules of basketball. They trash-talked for a good 5 minutes, which I guess is how long it takes to get over a humiliating defeat at the hands of girls.

Male ego? Already intact.

(During the same game, a gangly girl ended up being tripped and fell flat on her stomach and face. I could tell immediately by the expression on her face that she considered this an excellent opportunity for drama, so she grabbed her abdomen and start absolutely convulsing with tears. The boys cracked up amongst themselves, and the girls rolled their eyes. Clearly this was not her theatrical debut. One girl sighed and walked over to comfort Miss Drama, and she had a miraculous recovery.)

A few characters really stood out to me:

    • The really short but mid-puberty kid with hair in his eyes who kept muttering in a low voice to everyone he saw, “got a mirror?” He looked like he belonged in the Outsiders. Not surprisingly, no one seeemed to have a mirror.Later on, I heard him talking to another kid, “OK, I’ll tell you, but you have to swear on….something big…hmmm….”Other kid: “My life? I’ll swear on my life.”Ponyboy: “No… it has to be something much bigger than that.”

      I couldn’t tell what he told the other kid, but I’m pretty curious.


    • The unfortunate chubby red-head who had nothing better to do with her time than to grab the boys’ basketball rebounds and then hold the balls hostage until the boys asked, nicely, for them back. She tried to be coy, holding a ball behind her back and saying things like, “come and take it, then.” She’d also loudly yell “FAIL!” at every missed shot. I cringed for all of them; the boys were really embarrassed and obviously wanted her to leave them alone, and she was so desperate for the wrong kind of attention. I foresee some tough years ahead for her.


    • The girl who clearly knew she was the leader of the pack. She’d be talking to some friends, abruptly walk away and find a new place to sit, and then smile smugly as they migrated toward her again. She was also a champ at freezing people out of a conversation. Not my favorite thing to watch.


  • The girl who had her own style, and totally owned it. (It didn’t hurt that she was also super cute.) She had on a unique, carefully planned but casual outfit, and looked great. The problem? She totally knew it, based on the way she walked around and seemed to check whether people were noticing her. Psychologists say that most teens act as if there is an invisible peer observing, and potentially judging, them, so her behavior wasn’t unusual…just a bit precocious.

If you get the chance to see your kids in action, you really should grab it.  It’s pretty cool both from an anthropological perspective, and to see how your kid interacts with others in social settings. Plus, I got a bit of a tan. win-win.

Update: totally forgot to describe what a lot of the girls are doing for fun at recess. They spent most of the time standing on the platform of the playscape, grabbing on to the top of the fireman’s pole, and trying to swing themselves around and around it, using their arm muscles to spin themselves, while spiraling to the ground. Some of the girls were really, really good at it – they could get in about 6 rotations before landing on the ground. I was impressed by their control and strength. When I described it to Frank, he said, Kinda like pole dancers? I replied, “No! NOT like…oh.  Yeah, maybe a little.”

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *