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Recess Battles

Playing, Fighting, and Storytelling

Anna R. Beresin, Brian Sutton-Smith

Publication Year: 2010

As children wrestle with culture through their games, recess itself has become a battleground for the control of children's time. Based on dozens of interviews and the observation of over a thousand children in a racially integrated, working-class public school, ecess Battles is a moving reflection of urban childhood at the turn of the millennium. The book debunks myths about recess violence and challenges the notion that schoolyard play is a waste of time. The author videotaped and recorded children of the Mill School in Philadelphia from 1991 to 2004 and asked them to offer comments as they watched themselves at play. These sessions in Recess Battles raise questions about adult power and the changing frames of class, race, ethnicity, and gender. The grown-ups' clear misunderstanding of the complexity of children's play is contrasted with the richness of the children's folk traditions.Recess Battles is an ethnographic study of lighthearted games, a celebratory presentation of children's folklore and its conflicts, and a philosophical text concerning the ironies of everyday childhood. Rooted in video micro-ethnography and the traditions of theorists such as Bourdieu, Willis, and Bateson, Recess Battles is written for a lay audience with extensive academic footnotes. International scholar Dr. Brian Sutton-Smith contributes a foreword, and the children themselves illustrate the text with black and white paintings.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

Anna Beresin’s analysis of the play life of children on the playground is a bit like reading about the Marxist revolution or even more powerfully about seeing the proletariat fighting for its rights while being slaughtered by the governing classes. In my thirty years as a university doctoral supervisor in psychology, education, and folklore, I have seldom if ever seen such a massive collection of data...


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pp. xi-xii

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Introduction: Tensions in an Urban American School Yard

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pp. 3-14

Classic signs of an active children’s culture are all over the Mill School yard.1 Chalk games are not allowed, but painted graffiti ebbs and flows like waves on the freshly repainted school walls. Shoes dangle from the telephone wires above the iron fence. Balls bounce off walls, rocks are thrown onto hopscotches, and singing games...


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1. Violence as “The Recess Problem”

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pp. 17-26

Mr. Rumble, an energetic, middle-aged white man, wore professional clothes and sparkled with the energy of someone who was confident in his role as principal. He welcomed me as a fellow professional and became nostalgic for his graduate school days. A man in transition, he allowed me complete access to the school for research purposes. I observed not only the school yard but the cafeteria...

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2. Storytelling and Children’s Battles

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pp. 27-38

The children soon realized that they were allowed to say anything in my presence. The fourth-grade boys particularly enjoyed saying curse words and uncensored versions of popular raps into my microphone. Aisha, an expert rope jumper in the generation before Tashi, thought I was a homeless lady—not, she quickly added, because of the way I dressed. In her neighborhood...


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3. The Grown-Ups Giveth, the Grown-Ups Taketh Away: Misunderstanding Gendered Play

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pp. 41-62

In 1992, Mikee Cohen, a popular, pale-faced ten-year-old with dark eyes, was an expert in handball. He heard that I was interviewing children during recess time to ask about their school yard games. He followed me one morning and began to interview me: Mikee: Where are you from? (Do you mean what planet?) Mikee: I know you are from Earth, but really, are you from Israel or someplace?...

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4. “Nike, Nike, Who Can Do the Nike?”: New Commercialization and Scripted Exploitation

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pp. 63-76

At the Mill School, rope almost always meant double-dutch jump rope. A rich African American street tradition, rope links children to each other and to moves and phrases absorbed as common culture. Two players turn two long ropes (or one laundry line doubled over) and rhythmically rotate them eggbeater style. The jumper must skillfully leap in between as the two ropes beat their rhythm...

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5. Restricted Movement in a Scripted World

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pp. 77-85

The school yard is tense at times: “They always beat us [to the door].” “I’m first, first.” “Second!” “What time is it? Third!” “Aw, I’m gonna be last.” “You got to call it.” “You got to call it quick.” First! Second! Places erases! No, reverse it down. Ace, ace, first, second...


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6. “Work That Body, Oddy, Oddy”: Lessons from “Old School” Rhymes

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pp. 89-114

Traditions serve as a form of advocacy. In 2004, Tashi eyed me with her brown doe eyes, stood up a little taller, and marked her steps in place as she sang her favorite rope games without a rope: the one the school provided was too short, too stiff, and unusable for double-dutch. She sang loudly and strongly...

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7. Keywords of the Playground

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pp. 115-126

My initial study of the Mill School was never intended to be longitudinal, but I kept going back. After starting out as a study of ethnic diversity, my project shifted to focus on culture change. Like most folklorists, I sought to examine the uniqueness of the location and the variants that could be recorded—the songs, the stories, the moves...

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8. Play and Paradox

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pp. 127-134

Theorists have been fighting over what play is and is not as educators dispute what is or is not a worthwhile activity for children. For years, writers have argued that we do not know quite what play is, but we all recognize it when we see it.1 Sadly, this is not the case. But documentation—film, audio, painting, and even recollection...

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Conclusion: Wrestling with the School Yard

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pp. 135-140

When the Mill School’s teachers saw the videos of their school yard, several remarked that the children “were just being good for the camera.” After I assured the teachers that the children were just as busy and kind-spirited when the camera was obscured from view, they became nostalgic about childhood and curious about what the children were singing...

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Postscript: Screaming Culture

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pp. 141-143

December 9, 2004. I am back at the Mill School with new paintbrushes, india ink, and reams of paper. When I tell Ms. Headley’s third-grade class that we will be doing art together, they say, “With paints?” When I answer “Yes,” they wiggle and giggle and ooh and ahh. Ms. Headley has already somberly escorted them from the auditorium...


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pp. 144-145


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pp. 146-152


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pp. 153-163


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pp. 164-168

E-ISBN-13: 9781604737400
E-ISBN-10: 1604737409
Print-ISBN-13: 9781604737394
Print-ISBN-10: 1604737395

Page Count: 144
Publication Year: 2010