by Kim Schlender

September 27, 2010

As the kids go back to school and I hear the school bells ring, I think back to nearly 10 years ago, when I applied to be the playground lady at a nearby elementary school.

After a few days of being on the playground with 200-plus students, two monitors and one volunteer parent, I asked the principal what the student-to-supervisor ratio was. He looked at me strangely and said there wasn’t one. He said there were no state-mandated standards. I also learned that there was no training offered to the playground staff, other than CPR.

How many times have we heard that bullying starts on the playground? And here I found myself on that playground with no training, no disciplinary options and no support. Over the three-plus years I suggested several times that we bring in some trainers, meet with district social workers or at least put a behavior plan in place that would give us some authority. The message I got was that it wasn’t a priority.

Clearly I could not watch so many children and see everything. I made sure that I was visible to the kids, and I watched for the kids who seemed to be alone and those who seemed troubled day after day.

I noticed many of those kids would stay near me, which created a safety net of sorts. Many were also eager to talk and just have someone know who they were.

Then, of course, there were the troublemakers. I hoped that if I kept an eye on them and they knew it, they would make better choices. Often it actually worked. I was even able to catch them doing something good from time to time.

What frustrated me the most was that some kids seemed to think they could do and say whatever they wanted to. The attitude seemed to be that they could tease, taunt, be mean and tell other kids what to do. Often these were the popular kids, who had a group of followers. It seemed they were kings and queens of the playground.

Of course they were told to be nice — but remember, we had no guidelines on how to discipline or work with these kids. There were no real consequences and the kids knew it.

What kept me coming back was that, overall, the kids were kind and respectful and really wanted to do the right thing. And the volunteer parents really made a difference by being present.

Perhaps we don’t need to legislate ratios and standards, but we should recognize that playgrounds are understaffed and that they need trained, caring people to watch over our children. The playground should not be a scary or unsafe place. We can help kids make good choices about how they treat others by putting some time and resources into ensuring that the playground is a great place for kids and the adults who care for them.

I would encourage those who can to volunteer on a playground or in a lunchroom. Better yet, work with the PTO or site counsel at your school to get some training for the playground staff. And better still, model and teach your kids to be kind and respectful to others.