Schools devise activities amid sniper lockdown

Bored, restless kids have trouble concentrating

Scavenger hunts to hopscotch

Playgrounds, field trips off-limits for three weeks

October 17, 2002|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

With her school locked down by the sniper shootings, one Prince George's County principal organized a diversion for her increasingly restless pupils: Popsicles and hopscotch.

The 712 children at Barnaby Manor Elementary School, near the District of Columbia line, needed more relief than inside recess, so Principal Laura Barbee scheduled afternoon parties this week.

The "Shutdown Socials," as Barbee calls the 20 minutes of playfulness, are among a host of activities that principals across the region have instituted as the school lockdowns enter their third week.

Such breaks range from a scavenger hunt at the Friends School in Baltimore, to game-playing at Hilltop Elementary in Anne Arundel County, to a Washington nursery school's renting of an inflatable "moon bounce."

In each case, the activities are designed to help students - especially the young ones for whom playtime is almost as important as schoolwork - escape the cabin fever spreading through buildings where blinds are shuttered and doors locked.

Blowing off steam

"In many, many schools, things are starting to get testy," said Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists in Bethesda.

"Kids need an opportunity to run, to play, to blow off steam, to socialize. These are important elements of childhood development that kind of get put on hold during a crisis situation."

When the first emergency code was issued Oct. 3 in response to the initial sniper slaying, educators focused on securing buildings and rounding up students.

Alarm rose after a 13-year-old boy was shot outside his Bowie school four days later. Now, everyday instruction is threatened by students who can't focus.

"They're just little kids, and asking them to sit all day is just not reasonable. You have to give them an opportunity to burn off all of that energy," said Catherine A. Amsel, principal at Catonsville Elementary School, where classes rotate through the gym so children can play board games and jump rope.

Even during the winter, some schools have students go outside for a few minutes simply for the benefit of a fresh-air break.

The lockdowns, however, have thwarted schools' abilities to refresh the minds of wearying pupils.

"Because the kids have been confined for so long, sometimes it creates behavior problems - the kids get on each other's nerves. We are not noticing that here, but what we are noticing is lack of focus," said Susan B. Eisenhart, principal at Warren Elementary School in Cockeysville.

There, students participate in relay races in the cafeteria and are sent home with the assignment to play outdoors.

Indoor activities seem to be concentrated in nursery and elementary schools, which lack the big gyms and activity rooms that middle and high schools use to help children exercise their way out of stir-craziness.

Holiday themes

Because Halloween is nearing, many schools have given activities a holiday flavor. A few schools, for example, held pumpkin pickings and carvings in the hallways, because children couldn't take field trips to local farms.

"I thought it would be a fun idea because we've had so much indoor recess," said Diane Richmond, principal of Summit Park Elementary School in northwestern Baltimore County.

She is also having the children write essays about their carvings of book characters.

At some schools, the relief comes simply from classes taking walks through the hallways. Or from the normal rainy day or wintertime program of indoor hockey and calisthenics.

"We just have a lot of rainy day activities," said Cindy Walsh, director of the Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church Nursery School in Washington.

"Lots of inside play. Lots of puppet shows. Lots of spontaneous things that would normally go on in the winter."

Quarter-mile walks

At Belmont Elementary School in northeastern Montgomery County, Principal Peter H. Bray has moved the scheduled outdoor activities inside the white-brick schoolhouse. So quarter-mile walks that once went around a field now take place in the gym, and students perform jumping jacks in class.

"We're going to look at starting some of the winter programs earlier," Bray added.

Other schools have made inspired adaptations to the extended, enforced crisis response.

That includes the socials at Barnaby Manor Elementary in Oxon Hill, where pupils are taken to an enclosed courtyard to eat Popsicles, hop around and laugh.

"We had no idea how we were going to do it," principal Barbee said. "We just wanted time for the kids to get around and get out."

Staff writers Susan Baer, Tricia Bishop and Laura Loh contributed to this article.

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