For a good portion of this school year, the students were not taking care of the recess materials the way I wished they would. When I was younger, I took meticulous care of my things because I wanted them to last. If someone lent me something, or I was using something that wasn’t actually mine, I made even more sure that I took care of it. However, I often observed the students use the recess materials like they were disposable, or at the very least, they do not show the same sense of ownership that I did. Unfortunately, this may have been a contagious attitude from (some) the adults. They did not seem to care about recess or gym materials; things were rarely put back or returned to their rightful place. It’s not realistic to expect students to care for materials when they observe adults not doing so. It was frustrating to say the least; I can only be in so many places at once. Unfortunately, this experience is probably very familiar with many PE teachers all over the world.
One of the worst culprits for mistreating materials were the middle school students. Normal wear and tear was not the issue; they were purposely losing materials or mistreating them (and unfortunately they could get away with it). Because the materials were shared with younger students, the younger students would suffer. They would have to wait until the materials were replenished (if there was money in the budget), which meant for the time being they had less to use. Oddly enough, it was during these times of less that i sometimes observed a change in behavior for the better from the younger students.
Get all the adults on board with a system
The first step to changing this culture was to meet the adults and go over expectations with them. We made a clear set of guidelines of where they should be during recess, as well procedures that helped the students clean up their materials and put them away. While not perfect, getting the adults on board with these procedures was an important step to changing the culture of recess material management.
Older students need more responsibility
For the middle school students, we needed to give them more responsibility and autonomy. The middle school students got their own materials to use that would not be shared with anyone else, and the materials they received were larger and higher quality. The students from middle school were tasked with watching over their materials and they would not be replenished. It was their responsibility to take care of their materials now, and if they lost or broke them, they either had nothing left, or had to replace it themselves.
Less is more
For the younger students, i tried reducing the amount of materials that were brought outside to the playground or inside the gym. We noticed that when large collections of materials were brought outside, they often dumped the bag or container out to find what they wanted. Inevitably other students would kick or throw the unwanted materials out of the way, making them harder to find for others, or flat out losing them in the process. When fewer resources were brought outside, each piece became more valuable. We saw this when middle school lost things for the younger students and they had less to use. The idea of supply and demand proved true; fewer resources made the value of each material increase in the eyes of the student.
However, I did notice that when too few resources were brought out to recess, a scarcity mindset was initiated. Because there was not enough to satisfy the requirements of the students, the focus of recess turned towards hoarding materials instead of playing with them. I slowly increased the amount of resources (literally one additional ball per week) until I noticed there was not any more hoarding, but did not add any additional resources past that point.
The challenge with younger students is to find the sweet spot for the amount of materials used at recess, and unfortunately it can be a moving target. Some classes love using sports balls, so bringing ten out to recess is too few. With a different class that prefers to play imaginary games or tag based games that don’t require materials, ten balls is too many. I try to err on the side of too few, and make notes of when I need to make changes for the next day. Taking the extra time to plan resource allocation is similar to what Montessori classroom teachers do with the materials in their classroom. Mirroring this aspect of the classroom at recess adds consistency to behavior expectations. This consistency is valuable to the young child. It should come as no surprise that I advocate integrating ideas from the Montessori classroom into the recess environment.