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Schools Without Playgrounds, Children Without Childhood, a Future Without Hope
(Photo: Playground via Shutterstock)

Schools Without Playgrounds, Children Without Childhood, a Future Without Hope

(Photo: Playground via Shutterstock)

The Milwaukee Common Council is expected to take up the issue within a week as to a proposed ordinance on whether any new elementary school approved in Milwaukee should include outdoor play space. Yes, while our children are savagely beaten down in the Dickensian landscape of high-stakes testing, zero-tolerance policies, school-to-prison pipelines, austerity measures that make the seedy and dangerous streets of American cities the sole source of recreation for many experiencing massive poverty and a sense of their own disposability, the city of Milwaukee is considering whether these children of Fagin should even have “yard time.” Schools are more and more beginning to resemble maximum-security prisons, but at least at most of those institutions, there is one hour of outdoor time.

The controversy erupted when the Milwaukee Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee recently voted unanimously to require outdoor play areas in any new elementary schools built in the city limits. Voucher and charter school charlatans revile the measure as a violation of parents’ rights by an oppressive government.

School Choice Wisconsin met the vote with anger and rage. School Choice Wisconsin is a deep-pocketed, reactionary group promoting private-school vouchers and semi-private charter schools. It issued a press release dated July 17, 2012, condemning the committee vote. In its statement, the group said that the vote mandating playgrounds “significantly limit[s] parent’s educational choice in Milwaukee.” The press release complained,”The goal of this policy is to restrict education reform in Milwaukee.” Evidently, giving children time to play is blocking neoliberal educational reform.

To read more articles by Danny Weil and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.

The fact is that most discussions of charters and vouchers are not done through legally mandated public hearings under law, but in back rooms or over expensive dinners, where business elites and Wall Street interests are the shot-callers in a secret parliament of moneyed interests. This is how the system works. The coin-operated surrogates and courtesans for the corporate privatization and financialization of education plan behind closed doors, make decisions outside the public realm, and court moneyed interests in an attempt to wrangle more and more swag from the $600 billion educational sector now deranged into a source of money for Wall Street and the extraction of profits.

The secret parliament that makes decisions over childhood and schools is not easy to discover. If you want to find out anything about vouchers or charter schools in Milwaukee, for example, it is difficult. For example, if you go to the City of Milwaukee’s home page and do a search for “charter school,” you’ll get a phone number to call to apply to manage or run one. You will also get a notice of a public hearing from 2010 and all sorts of irrelevant information, such as the City Charter and Code of Ordinances. This is all seemingly designed to black-bag the public’s right to know by vitiating disclosure and transparency with irrelevant information and deflection.

Why the Issue of Outdoor Play Areas for Kids?

The issue of providing playgrounds for students was brought before what is known as the Common Council in Milwaukee, a governing body much like a city council, by a group of grassroots activists convinced that voucher and charter schools are shortchanging our children by denying them programs usually found in traditional public schools. One activist noted in a statement to the Council:

“Over the past few years, many of us noticed the lack of amenities available for our children to be children. It is not acceptable for our children to be treated as if they live in the Jim Crow south of the past or a third world country.”

The activists’ statement was sent by email on July 21, 2012, to the Common Council. It was signed by the co-chairs of Women Committed to an Informed Community, the chair of the Christian Community Caucus, the executive director of the Council for the Spanish Speaking, and the newly formed Education Coalition of Milwaukee.

Many start-up charter schools and “voucher schools” in Milwaukee, as in other areas of the nation, are housed in former industrial buildings, and they obviously were not constructed with children, teachers or childhood in mind. In Berkeley, California, the REALM Charter School was allowed to open under a freeway, even though the building was not up to environmental code. In fact, many children attending the industrial-zoned start-ups find themselves sitting in old warehouses, literally giving metaphorical and figurative currency to the claims made by many parents, teachers, children and policymakers that schools warehouse kids.

Explore Charter School in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is one such school. Morty Ballen, a product of Teach for America, founded Explore in 2002. According to The New York Times:

“He now leads a Brooklyn charter network. (His fourth school is scheduled to open in September.) The school began in Downtown Brooklyn. In 2004, it relocated to a former bakery factory in Flatbush, where most classrooms were windowless. In August, the Education Department moved it to 655 Parkside Avenue, squeezing it into the fourth floor and portions of the third in a building occupied by Middle School 2 and Public School K141, a special-education school.”

The shared space has a library half the size of a classroom. The New York Times reported in May of this year that the space is so constricted that a few thousand books have to be stored – meaning they can’t be used. The cafeteria, auditorium, gym and playground are all shared, reducing space. There is no computer lab at the school; instead, a rolling computer cart of laptops moves along its way on wheels.

As to playgrounds, there is no playground equipment for the younger grades, and there is little if anything in the way of after-school athletics. There are few musical instruments, and the school has no band. Add to all of this the fact that there are no accelerated classes for high-performing students, and one can only wonder if this is a school.

It is no coincidence that the proponents of “school choice” and testing now want to take away children’s play time. As containment centers for disposable youth, voucher and City of Milwaukee charter schools are growing faster than payday loan locations and are part and parcel of the school-to-prison pipeline.

The Deterioration of Care for American Youth

Everyone is aware that children abound with energy; that they cannot sit still for long periods of time – nor should they. It is well recognized that their learning is captured in play, and that children need socialization and outdoor activities to stay healthy. Add to this the massive levels of child obesity, and even considering opposing a vote that would mandate schools be built with playgrounds seems like not only heaping cruel and unusual punishment on children, but also akin to social suicide – or child abuse.

Shrinking recess time and schools without playgrounds are now becoming part of American schooling. The attack on child’s play is a growing phenomenon.

In Chicago, Arne Duncan’s old stomping ground, the situation is extremely dire. For multiple reasons, including a lack of space, changing priorities in favor of testing and austerity, and the historical defunding of public education budgets, 98 elementary and middle schools don’t have outdoor playgrounds.

Ogden International School on Chicago’s Near North Side opened this year in a new, $51 million publicly subsidized building. The school is in a busy urban area, so the new pre-K-to-sixth-grade school didn’t have enough space for an outdoor playground for the older kids. And so recess is held on the three-story building’s roof, where a plant-lined path leads to a fenced-in space children call “the cage.” Student reviews have not been favorable.

This is right up there with the country of India, where 50 percent of all public schools have no playgrounds at all. This is Race to the Top, American style.


There used to be a time when children were viewed as the future of our society, the harbingers of progress and imagination. This all changed in the 1980s, as childhood became the subject of hyperbolic commodification, and children, specifically those of color, were demonized as a threat to the larger white society.

The rise of Reaganomics saw the defunding of schools, the closing of publicly funded recreational centers, and the elimination of social protections for kids, especially for marginalized youth of color. Once thought of as prospects for a bright future, children have now slowly morphed into either being considered little more than consumers in the marketplace or marked threats in the eyes of the public. Childhood has been replaced by adult bewilderment, rapaciousness, virulent immorality and greed.

This can all be considered part and parcel of the decades of war against youth. Youth expendability is now the norm as there are no jobs or simply low-paying jobs being created for future adults.

Outsourcing, automation and cyber-learning have left a deracinated, futureless landscape in cultural and economic despair. Play time has now transgressed into penal time as the carceral state seeks to define more and more what it means to be a child.

In his book, “Expelling Hope,” Christopher Robbins correctly notes that punishment and fear have replaced compassion and social responsibility when it comes to how we treat and think about our nation’s children. Stealing children’s play time is right up there with stealing their future, and as a nation, we are witnessing both phenomena occurring at alarming speed, posing a public health crisis for our nation’s children.

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