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A Wild Walk in the Park

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Lenore Moritz: The following paragraph should be read in your best Rod Sterling voice (he's the guy who introduced each episode of "The Twilight Zone"):

Kids playing on the slide

A quiet playground. A gorgeous spring day. A few kids under age 5 frolicking in the sun. Over the hill, a low rumbling sound wafts toward the baby swings. Parents look to the sky to see if it's thunder; a blue sky indicates that impossibility. The first sight of one of them is sweet: a face with a big smile from the euphoria of being free for a few minutes. Then, like a stampede, the rumble gets louder as the next 30 kids follow quickly on the heels of the first one, kicking up dry dirt as their running feet hit the play area. Suddenly, the recently mellow swings are being tugged and used in ways not intended, and taunts replace the calm. You have entered the Twilight Zone ... otherwise known as the world according to second graders.

That's how it was a few weeks ago at the playground across from the elementary school. The school has its own playground, but on this day the kids spilled over to the public park. I was there. It gave me some fascinating insight into what really happens when a pack of second-grade schoolmates do recess.

We parents don't often get the chance to see our kids in action during the school day, and now I know why: It's scary. It's "Lord of the Flies" meets "Mean Girls."

To my left were a group of girls and one boy playing house. The "parents" and "kids" were being ordered around by one very bossy 8-year-old. She demanded that the boy play the girl of the family, despite his pleas to play the boy. After a few more minutes of his begging, she caved. Then she flitted around, barking more commands to her "family" about what they could or couldn't say and do. She'll either grow up to be one hellacious boss, or move to a small, unorganized nation and take over as dictator.

In front of me, the dynamic of four boys went like this: unfriendly to each other, then nice, then wrestling, then three ganging up on one ... all in less than two minutes. When the teasing and headlocking of one boy seemed to be too much (for me, at least), I told him that didn't seem to be the right way to treat someone. The headlocker stopped and released. The headlockee took off, only to come back again a minute later for more. I really wanted to tell headlockee that there are better ways to get and keep friends, but at this point the teacher finally noticed what was going on and broke up the mayhem.

Towards the end of recess, one girl shoved her index finger in the face of a classmate and screamed, kind of accusingly, "Why do you wear glasses?!" The startled but unflappable eyeglasses-wearer replied frankly, "Because I need them." I wanted to coach her to add, "And because they make me look smarter than you," but I was too caught up in wondering why, with only four days left of the school year, the finger-pointing girl was just now noticing that her classmate wore glasses.

The most amazing thing happened when the teacher called them to line up to go back into the school: They did. These 8-year-olds went from being lawless to orderly in the blink of an eye. There was the mirror: the juxtaposition of our feral side (which we tend to suppress as adults) and our well-behaved side. Perhaps we'd all be better off if we had a little recess in our day ... and the resilience of a second grader.


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