Recess Guardians Brings Games Back to Kids at School

Remember recess? Chances are, you filled those short periods between classes with fun activities like tag, four square and jump rope. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find that in many schools, says Mike McDonald, founder and CEO of Recess Guardians.

August 21, 2019

This article was written and published by Draft Canada, an Accelerator Centre Startup Visa Program client.

Remember recess? Chances are, you filled those short periods between classes with fun activities like tag, foursquare and jump rope. 

Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find that in many schools, says Mike McDonald, founder and CEO of Recess Guardians. In fact, “Recess had been removed at a lot of schools because of disciplinary issues, bullying, and/or sedentary behaviour,” he says.

Play is something of an endangered activity among North American children. A 2011 article from the American Journal of Play notes that free, unscheduled playtime has been declining steadily over the past half-century. In 1989, 96 per cent of elementary schools had at least one recess period, yet just a decade later, one survey found that only 70 per cent of kindergarten classrooms had any recess periods at all. 

That’s why Recess Guardians is giving kids the chance to be kids again with a simple program that teaches them how to play schoolyard games again through a youth-to-youth peer leadership model. 

Their goal? To build youth leaders and create safe, inclusive recess yards that inspire creativity and imagination in youth.

Recess isn’t what it once was

McDonald, originally from Saskatchewan, stumbled onto the problem by chance after his parents made him take a year off after high school to gain real-world experience and travel before starting his undergrad in kinesiology. He ended up as an intern at one of Saskatoon’s inner-city community schools and was surprised to find that recess wasn’t quite what he remembered. 

“Many of the students were glued to their Game Boys, iPods, cell phones and other screens, or stood around gossiping,” he says. 

Almost a third of kindergarten classrooms don’t have a recess period – and declines in recess time have been reported in more than half of elementary schools across North America and the United Kingdom.

McDonald began to think about how to design a recess program that would reintroduce play into the day while teaching kids leadership skills – including the responsibilities of gathering equipment and facilitating the games they’ve learned.

In 2008, he founded Recess Guardians. It started with a drop-in program he trialled in 11 Saskatoon community schools. With the help from his fellow kinesiology undergrad students who volunteered their time to implement the program to kids from grades four to eight and funding from Care & Share, they immediately saw positive results.

“Kids who have never been given an opportunity to lead or have never felt that they were worth anything, or worth taking a chance on, we are giving them that chance,” McDonald says. “The program is giving these kids confidence in themselves, giving them a reason to come to school and to speak up more in class.”

But it wasn’t until 2011 when they hit their crucial turning point: Saskatchewan Blue Cross – the province’s leader in health benefits – offered significant sponsorship. They joined in a full partnership with Recess Guardians, which resulted in successful expansion into 330 schools in the province alone, and into Manitoba, Alberta and BC. 

Students learn to play schoolyard games that they can teach peers during Recess Guardians’ recess programs.

And demand keeps growing. “We’re in over 600 schools right now and we have another 2,000 requested,” McDonald says.

Tackling problems through play

Recess Guardians doesn’t use typical solutions to address kids’ problems – for example, the idea of winning and losing.

“We have winning and losing in a lot of our games,” explains McDonald. “It’s not important if you win or lose. It’s how many times you get to play the game during recess. Kids learn that they might win this game, but we’re still going to play another three times – so who cares? Let’s just play it again. That’s important to teach – how to play compared to just winning.”

Then there’s bullying – a particularly big issue, considering 15 per cent of Canadian kids aged 11 to 15 say they’ve been bullied two or more times a month. That ranks Canada25th out of the 41 richest countries, according to UNICEF.

“It’s not important if you win or lose. It’s how many times you get to play the game during recess.” – Mike McDonald, founder and CEO

The evidence that the program reduces bullying is, so far, anecdotal, but Mike McDonald thinks it would be a good idea to do a study to determine data on what the long term effect is on their participants’ lives. 

“Our first kids we’ve worked with were back in 2008, so they would be around 24 right now. It would be interesting to see what type of differences it’s had on them and if they are taking it to the next level,” he says.

The programs bring fun and activity back to recess, but just as importantly, they teach kids about leadership.

But they do hear their fair share of success stories. “We hear schools say, ‘hey, we’d like our training the next year.’ We just did a recent survey and we found that 88 per cent of schools say our program increases leadership and 89 per cent said that it increases inclusivity, with 90 per cent of the kids [having] increased confidence in the classroom,” McDonald says.

Powered by local support

But the best part may be that Recess Guardians is free. “We’re not trying to charge the schools. That’s our thing,” McDonald says. 

Free is key. Mike explains that Recess Guardians is a charity organization. They’ve also received funding and help from the Accelerator Centre in Waterloo, Ont.

“I heard a lot of good things about the AC. And I wanted to get some guidance as we grew and we needed office space as well. You get mentorship and office space. It just seemed like a no-brainer,” he says.

They moved into evolv1, Canada’s first sustainable zero-carbon building when they were accepted into the AC. “We’ve been here since January 2019 and love it.”

It’s because of that support that Recess Guardians can continue to connect with individuals and organizations that are passionate about the power of play and to keep supporting all Canadian youth in leadership opportunities and leading active and healthy lives. 

“We find that kids gain confidence in themselves by instructing kids on the playground,” McDonald says. “It’s amazing how that translates [to] other parts of their life.”

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