Recess: one of the best times at school when you can finally leave your desk that you’ve been sitting at for hours--when it feels like you've been there for days. The moment the bell rings, all the children run out of the classroom and get active with their friends. It's a time to have a break from all the studying and to connect with friends.
When the weather is nice, students are highly-encouraged (aka forced) by teachers to go play outside. You’ll see kids outside with the iconic red-and-white caps on. At most elementary schools there is a 20 to 30 minute break time between the second and third period, and about 20 minutes after lunch and before cleaning time. In Japan, what do kids do during outside recess?
Let’s take a look at 10 of their activities.
The most popular outside activity has to be dodge-ball. All kids need is a ball and a designated field divided into two sides, anywhere they find space on the school field. This is also possible as a class activity because the number of players isn't limited and kids who aren’t particularly good at sports can still feel like they are contributing just by dodging and staying in the game.
Particularly popular with boys, you can often see a few kids taking up the soccer court chasing around the ball. It’s incredible the amount of energy children have--often they are playing with only half the usual number of players but running a full court.
The recess staple all over the world, tag can be played literally anywhere and around the whole school. With all the variations of tag available (freeze tag, zombie tag, the-teacher-is-always-it-wait-I-don’t-think-that’s-the-real-rule-tag, etc.), kids can play this every day and anyone can join this fun activity! Japanese students often use the red-and-white cap to differentiate by colour who is it and who is not.
4. Jumping ropes
In Japan, jumping rope is one of the units taught in elementary PE class. Students improve their hand-body coordination as they conquer each trick of the ropes-jumping skill tree. Alternate foot, swing jumps, front arm cross, backwards double bounce... In class, students have a checklist to mark off which trick they have passed, and students often take recess time to further improve on it (and/or to just jump for 15 minutes non-stop for fun). Some schools have bouncing-boards set up for students to take turns hopping on for higher heights.
While basketball during PE classes is conducted in the gym, many schools have basketball hoops set up outside too so students can shoot the ball around during recess. Depending on the size of the schools, you might see three or four balls flying towards the same hoop.
There aren’t volleyball nets set up outside, but students (commonly girls) gather in a circle and bump the ball around an empty space on the field, having fun trying to keep the ball in the air for as long as they can.
Tetsubou, or horizontal bars of different heights, are installed in each school and are also one of the exercises taught in PE class. Kids learn to do a kick flip on it, and advanced kids practice wrapping one of their legs around the bar and do continuous front and back spins. For some reason, this is also a popular hang-out place for girls, as girls tend to be better at this and love to show it off.
This is a game where students of two teams draw a line on the ground and one person from each side dashes along the line until they encounter (don!) each other. Then an epic match of rock-scissors-paper (janken-pon!) ensues with the loser returning to their side and the next runner running up to meet the winner again. Whichever team reaches the other side wins.
The “bamboo-horse” is a traditional Japanese toy. They are a couple of bamboo poles with one footrest installed on each pole. Kids practice stilt-walking and develop a sense of balance, while being proud that they are finally taller than you.
Most schools also have unicycles for students to ride around the school yard and fall off from. It is adorable seeing kids helping and supporting each other on and off the unicycles. This is training for their balance as well. Unfortunately, this skill is quickly forgotten once they enter junior high school so we don’t often see Japanese adults commuting to work on unicycles.
As a teacher, recess at elementary school is never a time to rest. Students always drag me outside to join them in some activity. It is a chance for them to show off their unicycle skills to me or to throw a ball at my face in dodge-ball, and it is an opportunity to practice it with me around. I realized that it is not so much the activity but the company they have that makes recess enjoyable.