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    Harsher Recess Rules in China Turn School Toilets Into Social Hubs

    Schools fearful of accident liability are clamping down on recess activities. Critics say the trend could condemn a generation’s childhood memories to be defined by time spent in restrooms.
    Apr 24, 2024#education#policy

    Although snacks are prohibited at her school, Jia Ziyu covertly stashes a few candies in her backpack, planning to enjoy them during study breaks with her bestie at their secret hideout — the restroom.

    As morning recess begins, the 9-year-old and her friend dart towards a toilet cubicle, where they can chat freely and exchange treats before the next class begins.

    “We choose to go to the toilet because it’s away from the watchful eyes of teachers,” Jia said. “If we’re caught by the monitors, we might lose points that determine the winning of school awards.” According to the Shanghai third grader, restrooms have become an unofficial playground in school, a place where she and her classmates can engage in games of their own creation.

    The phenomenon, known as “toilet socializing” on social media, comes amid increasingly stringent rules in schools across the country that limit traditional playground activities during breaks.

    These regulations stem from concerns over accidents and injuries to students, as well as the potential legal repercussions for schools. The noticeable shift in school environments away from the traditional bustling atmosphere of school playgrounds, has sparked widespread debate.

    Despite China’s Regulations on the Protection of Minors in Schools, which forbid unnecessary restrictions on student communication, games, and activities outside the classroom during breaks, “toilet socializing” persists.

    Mounting public concern about the trend is reflected in debates over a proposal put forth at the country’s annual meeting of policymakers and advisors, which ended in March. During the conference, Li Guohua, a member of the advisory Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, raised the issue of “toilet socializing.”

    Li’s proposal — that the education authority, schools, and families should coordinate to better ensure security on campus and that the childhood memories of this generation should not be defined by time spent in restrooms — generated a significant reaction in China, with various related hashtags on microblogging site Weibo garnering hundreds of millions of views.

    Jia’s mother, Wang Jia, who is now in her 40s, remembers a different school culture, when primary school recesses provided a chance to play with classmates and unwind from the rigors of the classroom. She recalls the decades-old classic rhyme about recesses: “Oh, 10 Minutes Break.

    Although the song is still sung in schools, the joyous depiction of school breaks rings somewhat hollow for her daughter’s generation. China Youth Daily found that more than 75% of 1,908 parents of primary and secondary school students surveyed in 2019 agreed that 10-minute breaks in schools are more tightly controlled than in the past. China had 100 million primary school students by 2023. According to the survey, the most common recess rules ban loud laughing or chatting in classrooms, require students to stay inside, or limit their activities outdoors.

    Cindy Zhu, mother of a second grader in Shanghai, disagrees with her son’s school’s rules of limiting children’s activities. “School is intense for youngsters,” she said. “Time-out breaks are necessary to ensure their well-being.”

    In addition, young students tend to have short attention spans and benefit from a period to relax after each class. Zhu said her son’s school day runs from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., comprising eight 40-minute classes. For schoolchildren aged 7-10, the typical attention span is about 5-20 minutes. Among ages 10-12, focus is generally maintained for about 25-30 minutes. Prolonged sitting in classrooms can lead to health issues such as myopia, obesity, and anxiety, studies show.

    The educational experts and teachers who spoke with Sixth Tone blamed “toilet socializing” on schools’ fears of potential compensation claims in case of accidents or injuries and their reluctance to shoulder responsibility.

    Chu Zhaohui, a researcher at the China National Academy of Educational Sciences, said legal ambiguity regarding responsibility, management, and disciplinary powers related to school accidents leaves schools vulnerable. “Inconsistent delineation of responsibilities often leads to the imposition of strict discipline as the only viable option to eliminate all risks of accidents,” Chu told Sixth Tone.

    Lin Ying’er, a primary school teacher, said schools are very scrupulous about pupil safety — a topic emphasized in frequent meetings. Even minor injuries like collisions between students risk triggering parental uproar.

    “I pity students forced to stay indoors at their most energetic age,” said Lin, who is also the mother of a primary school child. “Both schools and parents should be held accountable for the current situation.”

    Sandy Wu, a teacher in the southern province of Guangdong, said teachers are spread thin in monitoring student activity to ensure safety. “It is so hard for teachers because they need to supervise students all day,” she said. “If a student gets injured, it leads to a lot of trouble.” 

    Then, too, many youngsters revel in the excitement of “secret” get-togethers in restrooms.

    Wu’s school has decorated corridors with games like mazes, Sudoku, and Chinese string puzzles to entertain students. During breaks, she often sees students chatting and playing together there.

    Increased assignments, whether aimed at enhancing academic performance or simply managing student schedules, also play a significant role in children’s wish to escape the pressures of school. Ding Shan, a mother living in Shanghai, said her son receives a substantial workload, with many assignments mandated to be completed within school hours, forcing him to study during breaks.

    Education expert Chu suggests that one remedy may be clearer definition of “minor injuries” for students and educating youngsters better on safety awareness. Since its inception in 2008, the Ministry of Education has implemented a nationwide school liability insurance program, fully funded by the government, with an annual premium capped at 5 yuan ($0.7) per student. While this insurance has proven effective in addressing certain issues, concerns linger about insufficient coverage and limited liability scope.

    Li Guohua recommended that the Ministry of Education optimize insurance protection or introduce more insurance categories to cover activities during recess.

    Thanks to the increased emphasis on physical education, Zhu from Shanghai said she is satisfied that her son’s school is trying to provide more outdoor activities for students. But a physical education class alone doesn’t fully replace the benefits of more frequent daytime breaks, she said.

    School design also needs to allocate more space for activities, Chu suggested. Zhou Qingqing, 38, from the eastern Zhejiang province, said her daughter is no longer allowed to go downstairs to play in the playground after her classroom was moved from the ground floor to the third floor last year. “Playing is part of a child’s nature,” she said. “Just as we don’t forgo eating for fear of choking, we shouldn’t deny them the opportunity to play.”

    Zhou has taken the matter into her own hands. She canceled her daughter’s extracurricular classes and instead encourages her to play outdoors for an hour after returning home from school.

    “I believe the physical and mental health of children is more important than grades.”

    (Header image: Fu Xiaofan/Sixth Tone)