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Recess Battles: Playing, Fighting, and Storytelling by Anna R. Beresin (review)
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Anna Beresin’s text Recess Battles: Playing, Fighting, and Storytelling provides a unique window into the world of children’s games, words, and gestures while on the playground. Based upon her ethnographic field research spanning years at one urban school, Beresin’s text is notable for the close attention to detail she has given her field experiences as well as the compelling synthesis that she culls from her years of data as she crafts her argument. She writes that not only is recess needed in our schools, but that play is “nothing less than the serious negotiation of individual expression and culture” (p. 132) for children in the school yard.

The foreword by Brian Sutton-Smith, Scholar in Residence at the Strong National Museum of Play, describes the data collected by Beresin as an “earthshaking anthropology of the injustices being done to children by the abolition of recess” (p. ix). I agree that it is a significant accounting of the ways in which the tools of ethnography can illustrate the conflicting, sometimes paradoxical, and always complex ways cultural scripts and narratives live in a school yard. This specific space is framed through the lens of power relations, often characterized as adult and child, but Beresin also helpfully includes the institutional power structures of a school when contextualizing play data. Recess Battles documents what “children do with play as expressive culture while they learn to function in their society” (p. 10) and argues that “children are in fact facing a crisis of their own cultural expression” (p. 10) due to the increasing control the school (enacted through adults) exerts over them. As a longitudinal study of one place, this text is fascinating. It also appears to truly respect the voices of the children—including their own responses and interpretations of the games, at times throughout the text. It presents a unique snapshot of a place where the persons are fluid but the expressive culture can be documented across time.

Recess Battles is divided into three parts. Part 1 questions the prevailing belief of school adults that “the recess problem” is violence. Foregrounding her work through the lens of play fighting studied by ethnologists Gregory Bateson and Anthony Pellegrini, Beresin brings a fresh perspective to the school yard activities, again grounding her arguments in meticulously articulated transcriptions and field notes—utilizing charts and quotes to demonstrate that it is, in fact, transition times and spaces in school schedules that beget violence rather than the recess space itself. Part 2 illustrates the tension between cultural forces, the institutional power of the school, and the interplay of youth expressive culture between these forces. The first chapter in this section looks at gendered play, especially relative to a variety of handball games that boys played and the hopscotch games girls played. The next chapter explored the commercialization of school yard games and what Beresin terms “scripted exploitation.” Looking at jump rope jingles, Beresin captures the rhymes of corporations—in particular Nike, Reebok, and McDonald’s. Unlike earlier parodies documented by folklorists in the 1970s, Beresin heard the jingles repeated verbatim over the years of documentation. Her analysis of how to interpret these commercial rhymes accompanied by creative jump moves presents a possibility of individual expression by the youth, but also signals a crisis in the cultural fabric of the community. The third chapter of this section looks more closely at the institutional power of the school, suggesting that “the real recess problem is an education problem in disguise” (p. 82). This section ends with the question: “At what point does research evolve into advocacy?” (p. 85)—a question that propels the reader in the final section that does advocate for recess and provides some specific talking points to support this agenda.

This text is significant for the voices heard, the games documented, and the conclusions presented. The book also advocates an activist agenda to reinstate and/or support recess in all schools. While I embrace this agenda, it also raised the question: For whom is this text written? A folklorist delights in the ethnographic detail and the painstaking transcriptions that illuminate, but this sense of readership also complicates the narrative. The youth voices, at the...


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