Give the Kids a Break: Why Reducing Recess Time Doesn’t Work

A fidgety classroom makes for tough teaching.

Historically, students ran off their excess energy during recess, but over the past 20 years, increasing academic demands have squeezed schools’ ability to provide significant recess time.

It’s tempting to think we have to either cut recess to increase academic time or keep recess and risk students not learning what they need. But this is a false dichotomy. The facts suggest reducing recess time is bad for teachers and students alike.

Those who argue for reducing recess say less playground time equals more academic performance. Alia Wong’s recent article in the Atlantic (“Why Kids Need Recess and Why It’s Endangered”) explains that about one in three school districts reduced recess opportunities to make more room for academics after the passage of No Child Left Behind.

Others credit Common Core State Standards with greatly expanding academic expectations and thus increasing demand for teaching time. Moreover, playground time means minimal adult supervision, so some opponents of recess suggest that reducing playtime decreases bullying.

Why the critics are wrong about recess

Wong points out that research clearly defends recess from an academic standpoint. Her piece lists several studies that support recess as a net benefit to education rather than an option that diminishes learning.

The breaks and physical activity provided by playground time increase attentiveness and reduce fidgeting, helping student concentration and increasing learning. Fresh air and physical movement calm children — as research and parental experience shows.

Recess also provides opportunities for increasing core body strength and improving proprioception and hand-eye coordination. Playground games are about fun and competitiveness, but they also help young bodies develop. In a nation where obesity among youth is increasing, recess can address physical as well as mental requirements.

Embracing the social benefits of recess

Vigilance against bullying is essential, of course, but we have to acknowledge how recess helps students learn to interact socially, develop leadership skills and widen their imagination. It just takes supervision, mentoring and modeling to help students learn how to be kind to one another. They cannot do so if they lose the chances for social interactions that recess allows.

Teachers in districts with reduced recess should incorporate physical play into their classroom, seeking kinetic opportunities at regular intervals and incorporating movement into their lessons. While this does not make up for the fresh air and large-muscle exercise that outside recess offers, it can provide a small boost to students. Breaks to stretch, jump or practice deep breathing can help provide some of the benefits of recess.

Saluting the power of outdoor play

We should all be aware that indoor activities are coping mechanisms and can never come close to replacing the experience of outdoor play. In districts where recess has been eliminated or reduced, teachers and parents should unite in their call for a renewal of playtime.

Of course the school day is about learning, not entertainment, but if recess increases a student’s ability to learn, it belongs in the schedule.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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