The Demise of Recess

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The Crisis in Physical Education
Remember school recess?

That block of time reserved for nothing but play – jumping rope, shooting hoops, mastering the jungle gym – and hanging out with your friends on the blacktop?

Add recess to the list of activities today’s parents enjoyed when they were children but today’s kids are, in many cases, denied. Forty percent of elementary schools nationwide have either eliminated or cut back recess time, according to the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play.

This is on top of the national trend toward eliminating or severely scaling back on physical education (PE) classes; studies have found that only half of kids in grades K to 6 have any kind of PE.

Ironically, while union rules for many adult workers across the country require a minimum 15 minutes of break time for every four hours of work, and a half-hour for lunch in an eight-hour day, children, it seems, are losing the right to their own breaks.

What’s Going on Here?

“We are experiencing a cultural shift toward increased academics at the earliest possible age,” says Rhonda Clements, Ed.D., a professor of education at Hofstra University and president of the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play. The organization, part of the International Play Association, formed in 1973 with the mission of “protecting, preserving and promoting play as a fundamental right for all children.” Since then, it has become a leading advocate of preserving recess in schools.

Susan Ohanian was inspired to write the book What Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children Struggling in Kindergarten? when she read a 1998 New York Times article detailing the fact that Atlanta was building a new school without a playground. Then-Superintendent of Atlanta Schools Benjamin O. Canada explained the policy this way: “We are intent on improving academic performance. You don’t do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars.”

Performance Pressure

Many school districts blame the national emphasis on high-stakes testing in the public schools for dwindling recess time. The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, in particular, puts pressure on school administrators to have their districts’ standardized test scores improve every year.

“Principals are in a tough situation,” says Tony Harduar, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. These administrators know that kids need exercise, he says, but they also feel the sting of legislation aimed at improving test scores and bolstering basic skills. “A principal’s job can depend on the decision he or she makes,” Harduar says of the recess issue.

Some schools have also raised the issue of potential liability on the playground and the prevention of bullying as reasons for cutting recess. But some play advocates find this ridiculous.

“Taking the time to properly train your staff and students in both equipment use and bully
prevention techniques will alleviate these potential problems,” says PE teacher Suzanne Legge.

Effect on Children

Educators and parents alike are worried that the elimination of recess, coupled with concurrent reductions or outright elimination of physical education classes, poses a serious threat to children’s health.

“With soaring obesity rates and increased interest in sedentary activities, a six-hour or longer school day is too long for children to go without breaks or opportunities for substantive physical activity,” says Dolly Lambdin, Ed.D., president of the National Association for Sport & Physical Education.

Plus, a growing body of research finds that even a 15-minute break enhances a child’s ability to learn.

“I strongly believe you are doing a disservice to students academically if you do not offer them time to unwind,” says Legge. “They come back to class refreshed, and their attention and focus is better.”

Consider the country of Finland, whose students score at the top in international standardized tests. Children there get a 15-minute recess break after every 45-minute lesson.

Along with providing opportunities for needed physical activity, unstructured time leads to social and emotional development, education experts say.

“In a well-designed and appropriately supervised recess period, children learn how to cooperate, compete constructively, assume leader/follower roles and resolve conflicts,” says Lambdin.

Teacher Martha Jackson, who is also a mother of two, voices the frustration of many parents: “They’re treating our children as if they’re little machines, but they’re not. They’re complex human beings.”

Academic Jeopardy?

But are the stakes even higher? Will the loss of recess put our children in academic jeopardy? For the National Association for Sport & Physical Education’s Council on Physical Education for Children, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

“Children need a variety of movement experiences to develop a healthy mind and body that is capable of learning,” the council asserts. “Schools must schedule daily recess in grades pre-kindergarten through six. The involvement of young children in daily physical activity is critical to their learning.”

There’s another kind of jeopardy too. For some children, recess, art and music serve as the primary motivators for their interest in school. When these students lose these pleasures, they have little left to keep them involved.

“In the short term, we get restless children who can’t concentrate on their schoolwork,” warns Ohanian. “In the long term, we get angry, emotionally stunted children who grow up to be angry, frustrated adults.”

Parents Take Action

The good news is that parents are fighting the demise of recess. In 1999, Rebecca Lamphere was puzzled when she moved into a new neighborhood and never heard the sounds of children playing at the school next door. When she learned that recess had been eliminated at the school, Lamphere founded the Recess Support Network, which now has recess advocates in 35 states, including New York. Through this network, Lamphere succeeded in restoring recess to her neighborhood school and every other school in the district.

In schools across the country, from Washington to Florida, the story is the same: parents angered by the cutting or elimination of school recess are loudly taking a stand. “I totally believe in the goals of No Child Left Behind,” says recess advocate and mom Terra Gillett, “but my child needs that oxygen in her brain to get her thinking!”

Further reading:

Recess Resources.

A Nation of Couch Potatoes?

Hot Button Issues in Education.