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  • The Art of Play: Recess and the Practice of Invention by Anna R. Beresin
  • Susan Eleuterio
The Art of Play: Recess and the Practice of Invention. By Anna R. Beresin. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014. Pp. 185, introduction, conclusion, acknowledgments, notes, references, index, photographs, 155 children’s paintings.)

Anna Beresin, a folklorist and professor of arts at Philadelphia’s University of Arts, has documented activities related to recess and what she calls “the practice of invention,” in nine public schools in Philadelphia from 2010 to 2012. Her fieldwork notes, renderings of children’s India ink paintings, and photographs by Megan La Mon are interspersed in this field-based study with “interludes”—brief conversations with teaching artists and quotes from scholars concerning play, art, and creativity. She notes in the Introduction that the book pairs narratives with “the examination of the intersection of art and play” (p. 9).

Beresin, who also wrote Recess Battles: Playing, Fighting, and Storytelling (University Press of Mississippi) in 2010, co-created a non-profit, Recess Access, a service learning project that donates playground materials to Philadelphia schools. This book seeks to examine the impact of Recess Access on the children who participate and, to some extent, on their schools and teachers. Her focus is to place contemporary children’s folklore, particularly during recess, in the context of what Beresin calls “creative practice” (p. 20). [End Page 239]

This combination of research, documentation, social activism, and analysis includes a focus on the materials themselves that traditionally have been used in American schoolyard play and at recess: chalk, balls, rope, and finally, very deliberatively in this case, “paint,” which is India ink and paper described by Beresin as “paintlore.” One hundred and fifty-five children’s paintings are interspersed throughout the book. They’re grouped by grade level, and Beresin also includes a few photographs of the actual children whose faces are masked with cut-outs from the paintings. Beresin also examines the status of recess in Philadelphia with wider consideration of its role nationally. Within this discussion, she advocates for non-technology-based art and play in all schools, along with her support for recess.

Through field interviews and a 2010 survey of the nine schools, she outlines a range of attitudes and practices. In some schools, she is told “[w]e don’t have recess” (p. 25). In 50 percent of the schools, recess can be withdrawn as a punishment. Other schools hold “socialized recess,” a process that is partially guided by adults with rules (pp. 27–8). Notably, once in a while, she has found a few schools with traditional recess. In this discussion, she also notes the condition of schoolyards. She found that 50 percent are inadequate due to broken pavement, and there are no hoops for basketball. Some playgrounds are being used as parking lots, with little or no space reserved for play (p. 148).

This volume offers an opportunity for analysis of not only contemporary children’s folklore and expressive culture in one section of Philadelphia, but also of efforts at what might be called social engineering in schools, orchestrated both by school staff and the Recess Access program. Unlike most folklife in education and more broadly based arts-in-education programs, Recess Access seems not to attempt to connect with school curriculums, standards, and other goals and objectives relevant to policy such as Common Core. Beresin’s research also shows few connections to teachers, other than as conduits to the children, or with the larger frame of school culture. Notwithstanding one or two schools where Beresin connects with an enthusiastic teacher, her focus on school culture is often cast in a highly critical perspective and a negative light. Chapter 6 outlines a brief, two-week quantitative study that examines the amount of physical activity in a gym class compared with recess at one middle-class school, but this is the only time Beresin works for an extended time with the school’s culture directly. Beresin concludes that the “key distinction between gym and recess is the relative amount of openness, indirectness, and exaggeration in group movement” (p. 122).

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