Give the Kids a Break!
A Reminder of the Importance of Recess
By Mike Strzelecki
A 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, offered a scathing review of our country’s underachieving education system.
“The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people,” the report admonished.
It said that declining academic achievement was undermining our international stature in areas such as science, commerce, industry and technological innovation.
The report offered generous solutions on how to boost our educational shortfalls, most targeted to school administrators. It said that schools should adopt more rigorous and measurable standards for academic performance and student conduct; teachers should be held more accountable; and significantly more time should be spent instructing in basic subjects such as mathematics and English. In essence, it promoted wholesale changes to our education system.
Decades have passed since publication of A Nation at Risk, but the report continues to resonate through schools across the nation—and more recently across playgrounds. As standardized testing results weigh more heavily on administrators, they seek ways to squeeze more academic instruction into a day. Often at the losing end of this time reallocation are activities considered more expendable—activities such as music programs, physical education courses and, more recently, unstructured play.
“There’s huge pressure these days on superintendents and boards to show that they’re serious about achievement,” explains Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “So what they often do is something symbolic—they get rid of recess.”
Indeed, the numbers are startling. According to the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play, a recess advocacy group, more than 90 percent of United States school districts had some form of recess in 1989, usually once or twice per day for 15 to 20 minutes.
Today, however, recess has become more a privilege than a right. More than 40 percent of elementary schools have either eliminated or cut back on recess, or are considering doing so.
School districts in Illinois, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Texas, New Jersey, Florida and California have all taken the cleaver to student free-time.
Missing What’s Missing
Freeing up more time for instruction is certainly a primary reason for schools to eliminate or reduce recess, but not the only one. School legal departments more than ever fear lawsuits from playground injuries. Children running around open playgrounds become vulnerable targets to outsiders. Playground fights and altercations are frequent. And, more importantly, schools have difficulty finding playground monitors.
But young children are inherently prone to fits of play. So, what is the child missing who does not have the privilege of spending part of his or her school day outside in an unstructured setting?
Plenty, according to Rhonda Clements, a professor of education at Manhattanville College, New York, and a leading recess advocate.
“Those 15 minutes of recess are very valuable to a child for so many reasons,” she explains. “And it goes way beyond just burning off steam. Where else during the school day are kids going to get a chance to chat with friends, to share stories? Children need to share discussion with their friends about family and about problems, just like adults do. And that just doesn’t happen in a classroom.”
“People also overlook the need for child-initiated activities,” she continues. “There is nowhere else in the curriculum where children have the opportunity to select what activities they want to participate in, what friends they want to interact with, who they want to talk to. On the playground, kids get to decide whether they want to interact with older or younger children.”
“Also, in schools that have lots of diversity, you learn more about each other from interacting on the playground,” notes Clements. “This is the kind of learning you can’t get in a school project.”
Clements also expresses concern about how eliminating recess may affect the rising trend in childhood obesity.
“Children’s health has got to be part of the learning experience as well,” she declares. “Children experience their greatest growth during early school years. This is when they should be out playing, building strong bones, doing physical activity. Sedentary habits begin in childhood and eliminating recess only reinforces sedentary behavior.”
Olga Jarrett, a professor of early childhood education at Georgia State University, says her own classroom studies show that children deprived of recess have trouble concentrating, lose focus more easily in the classroom and are more apt to distract others. She points out that, conversely, research shows that children who engage in vigorous exercise during the school day perform better academically, due to many factors, including increased blood flow to the brain.
“I don’t believe you can keep kids on task all day,” she writes. “A teacher who conducts an entire day without one short recess misunderstands how children learn.”
Research has unearthed countless other benefits brought about by recess. It’s been shown to improve speech development in children. It encourages cooperative play and advances language skills as kids use dramatic play to clarify ideas. Recess promotes problem-solving and creative thinking, and increases awareness of the cause-and-effect involved in a sequence of events. And perhaps, most importantly, it encourages self-confidence in trying new things.
Clements notes that virtually all of the benefits of recess discussed above carry over from the asphalt to the classroom.
“It’s no coincidence that Finland has more recess than any other country, and recently scored the highest standardized academic scores of any country,” she says, cutting to the bottom line.
Walter Kirn and Wendy Cole, in an April 21, 2001, feature story on unstructured play posted on www.time.com, state the value of recess more bluntly: “Multiple studies show that when recess time is delayed, elementary school kids grow increasingly inattentive. Goodbye recess, hello Ritalin!”
Growing Support for Recess
The rising trend in eliminating recess has caught the attention of parents. A backlash is afoot, with favorable early results. So far, three states—Virginia, Wisconsin and Connecticut—have addressed parents’ concerns by passing laws mandating recess for all students. California may soon do the same.
The state of Maryland has taken a low profile in the recess wars. Currently, no law exists in the state mandating recess, and policy is in the hands of individual school districts. The vast majority of Maryland elementary schools and many middle schools provide time for unstructured play.
Anne Arundel County schools, however, made national news last year by reducing recess for certain elementary school students, but discussions with the school district’s legal department recently revealed that they have no set policy on recess.
With Maryland having no law mandating recess, many parents are concerned that the time-honored institution is vulnerable in the hands of school administrators. This concern is exacerbated by the state’s increasing emphasis on the Maryland School Assessment (MSA), the state’s standardized testing program.
“I agree with mandating recess,” says Sarah Montgomery, who has two daughters at Westowne Elementary School, in Catonsville. “It’s an important part of a school curriculum. But I also think if you mandate it, you need to provide extra personnel support to run the recesses. Teachers shoulder a lot of responsibility as it is, and they need help in this area.”
Montgomery also expresses concerns about how recess is at times implemented.
“Some teachers use recess as a behavioral tool,” she notes. “For instance, they may withdraw recess for some students as punishment for negative classroom behavior. But, although I understand why this is done, I’m not so sure it’s ultimately helping the situation. Usually, it’s the kids that need to go out and burn off energy who are the ones having recess taken away.”
Another concern to teachers and recess advocates is how the unstructured time is distributed across the school day.
“Recess and unstructured time are wonderful for kids,” notes Michele Doyle-Wetzelberger, a seventh-grade teacher at Bonnie Branch Middle School, in Howard County. “They need that time just to be unencumbered. However, too much free-time and unstructured time can also lead to troublesome interactions between students. From my experience, it’s best when the unstructured time is offered more often in smaller increments rather than all at one time.”
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education agrees with Doyle-Wetzelberger. They recommend that elementary school children get at least one hour of exercise per day, preferably in 15-minute segments.
As parents, teachers, school administrators and legislators continue to tug and tussle over the existence and role of recess, too often left out of the equation is the party most affected—the child. After all, kids tend to be the most fervent advocates of play time.
“I just like being outside,” says Carlton Scott, a second-grader at Hillcrest Elementary School, in Catonsville. “I like recess the most about school. It gives you exercise and you don’t get to talk to other kids during class.”
He adds, “If I didn’t have recess, school just wouldn’t seem perfect to me.” BC
©Baltimore’s Child, April 2007