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To The Playground We Should Go

By Richard S. Lee

My dorm room window overlooks the Peabody School playground. It's a pretty crummy playground. The swings squeak and the wooden fort-thingy is starting to grow moldy. But I don't watch the playground. What I watch is the hordes of crazy screaming kids who stream into the playground every weekday morning and afternoon during recess. Mostly, they just run around and try to hit each other with foam balls. For them, life is good.

On my side of the window--the Harvard side--there are plenty of screaming kids going crazy. Many of them can scream quite loudly. But they are not happy. Life is not good. And I think this is because they don't spend 40 minutes a day climbing around on a moldy wooden fort-thingy.

Today, students here will begin the second week of reading period. It is only natural that stress levels have started to rise. All over campus, students will rub their bleary eyes and try desperately to finish term papers and problem sets before an arbitrary deadline. A few lucky ones might even find time to study for final exams.

But what about after reading period? Two weeks of exams, a week of intersession (read: summer job search) and a semester of classes, clubs and term-time jobs. Recess? The only happy screaming and running we ever do is done nakedly in the snow.

Come to think of it, the very concept of recess is antithetical to Harvard. Recess, by definition, is unstructured and freewheeling. Harvard life, by contrast, is one scheduled meeting after another. We meet for class, meet for clubs, meet for lunch, meet to practice and meet to talk about our meetings. Bring a PalmPilot to the playground and all the other kids will turn to you to throw their foam balls.

Our social lives consist largely of joining student organizations with rigid bylaws and mission statements. While these organizations do make use of creative energies, most require hours of menial work in rooms with poor ventilation. Recess is outside and if you don't like the rules, you can change them.

I'm not saying we should be paying $30,000 a year so we can regress back to the third grade. Still, there might be some room in our incredibly regimented lives for some unstructured pursuits. At MIT, for example, students regularly apply their engineering savvy toward benign, anonymous pranks. Recognizing these "hacks" as a valuable creative outlet, the administration often looks the other way, tacitly encouraging the practice. At Princeton and Cornell, it is common for students to flood en masse into the streets on weekends, simply to congregate and engage in spontaneous activity. In contrast, a professor who lives on Harvard's Faculty Row bemoaned the lack of such spontaneity, telling me that an outsider would never guess that more than a thousand college students lived near the Quad's wide grassy lawn.

And so I'd like to propose the following: Bring recess to Harvard. Let's set aside 40 minutes each day--or even as little as 40 minutes each week--for recess. That means 40 minutes of no classes or club meetings. The same goes for sports and music practices. Close the libraries and dining halls. If the weather is nice, turn off residential keycard access.

Students would be free to do anything they very well please. Some could choose to lounge on the steps of Widener and debate the finer points of Emerson or discuss the migratory patterns of the North American ibis. Others might choose to take a contemplative stroll along the Charles or play frisbee with blockmates. Maybe we could even take some of the Undergraduate Council's $40,000 and build a fort-thingy in the middle of the Yard.

Coordinating something like this would require widespread cooperation. But if the measure had the support of Neil, Harry and Fentrice, it just might be in the realm of possibility.

Until then, I will be watching the kids on the crummy playground outside my window.

Richard S. Lee '01 is a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

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