In recent times, recess has become threatened by the press for more academic instruction time and by fears of violent behavior. A dramatic indicator of this trend is seen in the increasing number of schools and school districts which have done away with or significantly reduced recess time (BBC news, 2007; Coughlan, 2007; Jarrett, 2002; Pressler, 2006; Sindelar, 2004). Underlying these actions is a belief that free play time is separate, and might even detract, from the work of school. This dissertation study, examines youth's communicative practices in the common playground game four square, providing evidence that important types of learning occur during recess time play. Furthermore, the findings of this study provide direction for curricular and classroom practice innovation.
Ethnographic in nature, this dissertation draws from over thirty five hours of audio/video recording gathered during lunch recess, collected during the 2007–2008 school year, at a small inner city elementary school playground, in a high needs area, of a large costal United States city. Utilizing methods common to linguistic anthropology, this study employs carefully composed transcripts as the primary data source, supported by extensive field notes and other analytic writings.
The study is situated in three broad areas of inquiry: semiotic and language development, literacy theory and practice, and the study of peer cultures. The findings indicate that playground games are a unique part of physical culture and, furthermore, provide particular semiotic affordances which contribute to youth's language learning. A model for understanding the different semiotic affordances of activities during recess is proposed. In their play youth are shown to use gesture and posture as a way of scaffolding talk and building complex utterances. Specifically, in this study, the playing of four square is shown to provide youth with an opportunity to develop a semiotic awareness, that is, an awareness of how words, bodily expressions and objects can stand for other things and actions. As such this study has implications for a notion of literacy theory that engages with meaning making on a broad level. The study makes the argument for an embodied notion of literacy to be developed that accounts for the unique ways youth use their bodies as expressive mediums. Recess is shown to be much more than simply a time for "blowing off steam". Far from a "cognitive rest" as recess has been hypothesized to function as, important work happens when youth are engaged with each other, in creative and physically interactive ways. It is shown that the information gathered from studying youth engagement with games and each other during recess time can be used to inform classroom practices, and suggestions for curriculum are presented.