In Defense of Recess

April 4, 2022

From a 2015 article on Orlando schools mandating 20 minutes of recess per day for students

The pandemic has been hard on everyone connected to schools. Students have been suffering from depression & anxiety, and acting out. Teachers are burning out in record numbers. It’s been tough all over.

The problems are multi-faceted and won’t be solved with a single magic bullet. Still, I’ve been writing and reflecting on the value of play and a play-based approach to learning lately, and it’s worth pointing out that schools have an ace in the hole that they may not be playing enough.

Recess.

Recess is probably one of the most important and under-appreciated part of the school day. It’s like how parks function in cities; the naive city planner or local government gets rid of parks because they don’t seem to contribute to the “productive” part of the city (industry, tax base, etc.). But the farsighted planner knows that city parks are like lungs for the city, replenishing everything around them. Cities without parks are miserable. Parks are a critical ingredient in making urban living spaces dynamic. Thus the people who set aside parkland for cities (i.e., Central Park for New York) are hailed for their genius, and those parks become iconic for the cities and their residents. Parks make the rest of a city work.

Recess serves the same kind of function in the school day. Not only is it valuable in its own right, but it makes everything else in the school day work. Students value it, and having it allows them to focus on their schoolwork and get more out of their day. It serves so many functions that the American Academy of Pediatrics published, in 2013, a full-throated defense of recess titled The Crucial Role of Recess in School.

Their conclusion? Recess is critical for cognitive, academic, social, emotional, and physical development. Some quotes:

“Just as physical education and physical fitness have well-recognized benefits for personal and academic performance, recess offers its own, unique benefits. Recess represents an essential, planned respite from rigorous cognitive tasks. It affords a time to rest, play, imagine, think, move, and socialize. After recess, for children or after a corresponding break time for adolescents, students are more attentive and better able to perform cognitively. In addition, recess helps young children to develop social skills that are otherwise not acquired in the more structured classroom environment.”

“

Several studies demonstrated that recess, whether performed indoors or outdoors, made children more attentive and more productive in the classroom

.”

“Through play at recess, children learn valuable communication skills, including negotiation, cooperation, sharing, and problem solving as well as coping skills, such as perseverance and self-control. These skills become fundamental, lifelong personal tools. Recess offers a child a necessary, socially structured means for managing stress.”

Addition, the AAP strongly advocates that recess never be taken away or threatened (i.e., as a disciplinary measure). Furthermore, some sort of break (even if it’s not on the playground) is necessary for adolescents as well younger children.

This last point won’t surprise people who work with high schoolers, I suspect. I continue to be struck and inspired by Sara VanderWerf’s wonderful blog post from 2017 entitled You Need a Play Table In Your Classroom, wherein she finds huge value in giving free-play time to her high school students.

Recess serves a lot of functions, and can solve a lot of problems for us. The fact that it alleviates stress, anxiety, and is fundamentally social makes it perfect for the current moment. But I keep thinking about another benefit: time for teachers.

Time is always in short supply for teachers. Each hour of time with students requires some amount of time to prepare. And growth in their practice requires time too. The best environments for teachers give them time not just to prepare for class, but to meet and plan with each other, and to observe each other at work. Read a reflection like this one about how a teacher learned from colleagues and you might agree that the best PD teachers have at their disposal are indeed the other teachers in their building. Why isn’t this built into teachers’ schedules naturally?

The answer, of course, is that it’s expensive, and our school system tends toward a kind of grueling efficiency. But this leads me back to recess. Shouldn’t recess be cheap, comparably? And with more recess, don’t you have an opportunity to give teachers more time for other things? You don’t need as many adults to staff it, and you don’t need adults with as many qualifications. I was struck by this article that argued getting adults to stand back and remain more inconspicuous at recess leads to healthier, more independent experiences for students. Sure, you need adults present to make sure things don’t get truly dangerous or out of hand. But I remember ranging far from adults at my public elementary school. Recess was wonderful.

So if it’s good for kids, less expensive for the system, and has the potential to free up teachers’ time, reducing burnout and allowing for profession growth and promoting job satisfaction, why isn’t ample recess the standard everywhere?

I suspect that part of the reason is that the benefits of recess, being so high level (i.e., development of the whole person, character, etc.), are also longer-term and harder to measure. It’s also fascinating (and awful) to note that according to AAP, “the period allotted to recess… is less abundant among children of lower socioeconomic status.” Perhaps an instinct that recess is good means we try to deny it to poorer kids, out of the same perverseness that drives those kinds of terrible decisions.

Maybe there’s more that I’m missing, and recess ends up being more expensive than keeping kids in class. I doubt that’s actually right, but even if it were, it’s far more expensive to the system to have teachers leaving the profession in droves. According to a recent poll, over HALF of teachers are looking to leave the profession right now. Those are apocalyptic levels. More recess won’t magically solve everything. But we should be looking for marginal improvements anywhere we can right now.

Meanwhile, my unscientific twitter poll suggested that we could do with more recess in most schools.

[Editing out the “see the results option, that’s 216 votes, with 127 (59%) of those for “Too little recess”.]

Consider these two responses:

  • “[Where I work] kids there enjoy 1.5 hours of free play each day/session. That’s 25% of the total time for each day/session, distributed in three blocks of 30 mins.

    When they play they are happy, when they are happy… they happily learn :)”

  • “[My daugher’s] middle school has NO recess. Only 5 min transitions where they are rushing to the next class, and a 20 min lunch break. She is fried coming home from school every day.”

Recess won’t solve everything. But more recess might help more than we think.

 

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