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Stand Up for Recess

By Janice O’Donnell, Executive Director, Providence Children’s Museum

Elementary schools seem to be having an awful lot of trouble with recess lately. There are complaints that recess is a fertile ground for bullying, leads to misbehavior and injuries, is difficult to supervise, and takes away from class time needed for reading and math. As a result, school recess is being reduced in many schools, especially in urban schools with high poverty and high minority rates. A 2005 US Department of Education survey revealed an alarming recess gap: first graders in 18 percent of elementary schools with an extremely high poverty rate do not have recess, compared to 4 percent in schools with low poverty rates. Since 2001 and the advent of No Child Left Behind, 20 percent of the nation’s school districts have reduced recess time in favor of math and language arts (Center on Education Policy).

Recess PCM - Susan SancombAt the same time, research proves how valuable — indeed necessary — recess is for optimum learning and development.  An American Academy of Pediatrics study of 11,000 third graders showed that those with more recess time had better classroom success.  In a nationwide Gallup poll commissioned by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, more than 80 percent of elementary school principals reported that recess has a positive impact on academic achievement and two-thirds noted that students listen better after recess and are more focused in class.

Hardly a surprise.  Who doesn’t need to stretch one’s body and mind after sustained time on a task?  Today’s coffee break might take the form of five-minute-yoga, but we still recognize that adults need breaks from work during the day.  Kids need them more.  It is physically more difficult — takes more energy — for a six-year-old to sit in one place for an hour than to run around the schoolyard.  And leading kids in calisthenics is no substitute for recess.  Kids need to play.  They need free, self-directed play where they make up their own rules, set their own challenges, solve their own problems.  Recess gives them time during the school day to move their bodies, interact with friends, daydream, pretend, invent — all necessary for developing imagination, creativity, social skills and resiliency, as well as strong bodies.

So we need to stand up for recess.  I urge parents to tell their children’s principal, their school committee and superintendent that they expect elementary school children to have at the very least 20 minutes of recess every day and much more free play time for preschoolers and kindergarteners.

And, for those fighting that good fight, I offer some perspective.  Over a year’s time, children only spend 20 percent of their waking hours in school.  It’s true, try the math:  6 hours x 180 days.  I know that for weeks it seems kids are spending all their time getting ready for school, being at school and doing homework.  But parents and caregivers are in charge of much more of their children’s time than schools are and we can make sure that they have plenty of time for free play.  We can turn off the TV and computer.  We can be careful about enrolling them in too many or overly consuming extracurricular activities.  We can send them outside to play and trust that they’ll be just fine.  Better than fine — they’ll be doing exactly what they need to do to grow their minds and bodies and spirits.

Other resources:

Don’t Let Recess Die! Six Ways to Save Recess at Your Child’s School by Darell Hammond, CEO of KaBOOM!, in The Huffington Post
The 3 R’s? A Fourth is Crucial, Too: Recess by Tara Parker-Pope in The New York Times
- Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School by the Alliance for Childhood

Photo Credit: Susan Sancomb from Providence Children’s Museum

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  • i have a partner named christine and we are trying to write a persusive piece about standing up at recess.Our team is requiered to sit at recess or find something to do and there isent that much to do at recess..theres like 4 games to play and some of them arent that interesting…me and chirstine are very satisfied with this website.Thanks for helping us out.

  • Thanks for the comment Michele. I agree some adult supervision and intervention at times is necessary. Kids should never feel unsafe and threatened at any time during their school day. I know the bathroom can also be a scary place for some kids. This brings up the question; “How do we teach kids to play fair, be honest and empathic to their classmates?”

    Unscheduled playtime does not always mean unsupervised playtime. Unfortunately what happens in the public school when recess is not made mandatory or defined as unstructured is some teachers use this time to get right back to work doing math or writing. Kids do not get a break to stretch, exercise and play.

    And I agree you can have free play time at home but as kids get older (my boys are in 3rd grade) homework starts sucking up some of that free play time at home.

  • I don’t think anyone in particular is anti-recess, are they? However, let’s face it, the way children are interacting during recess can be a problem. Personally, as a kid, I would have *greatly* appreciated some adult supervision and intervention as needed on the playground. Kids can be downright cruel, and it’s a drag to dread recess. Yes, it’s important to have ‘free play time’ (which, by the way, they also can have at home), but it’s not fun for the kids that are being abused — verbally and sometimes physically — on the playground.

    BTW there’s an interesting article about the mixed response to a recess coach in NJ: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/15/education/15recess.html

  • And there is no research showing that staying in their classrooms all day increases a child’s test scores or their ability to learn. It makes me wonder how school districts come to this decision?
    I fail to see this as something that benefits children.

  • Thank you Janice for this call to action. Not only is recess critical for stretching bodies, but stretching minds too. some schools are taking it further in a great way by deliberately scheduling math immediately after recess (free play outdoors/ not structured activity) and seeing fabulous results. These results are what principals, parents and community leaders need to hear about from us, that way we all win. They can support their push on skills and kids can get the time they need to play, self organize/release, and be ready to work when they come back inside. I also love the reminder that we can deliberately make time for kids to play and that we need to value that time. Thanks as always for your leadership on behalf of kids and families.