Teenagers playing at recess
Leadership Insights

How Teens Can Benefit From Recess

By Kara Wyman, MEd October 8, 2018

When we think of recess and playtime, most of us think of cute little kids on the playground. But couldn’t our middle and high school students benefit from a break too? Adolescents often face a variety of challenges and, while I’m not suggesting we get teens on monkey bars or force a game of tag, they could really benefit from a mid-morning break that includes fresh air, physical activity, and socialization.

A quick lunch and P.E. class aren’t enough. While some middle and high schools have a brief nutrition break, many schools have cut it or haven’t even considered such a thing due to the pressures of standardized testing, needing every instructional minute possible. In-class learning time is crucial for academic growth, but so is looking at the whole child.

In the last ten years alone, we’ve seen a sharp increase in anxiety and depression in teens: over six million adolescents suffer from an anxiety disorder and self-harm cases have more than doubled in the last decade. One in five students is considered obese, and this ranges from six to nineteen-year-olds. While giving our teens a fifteen- or twenty-minute break mid-morning won’t magically solve these huge issues, it could produce some positive results. Let’s look at a few different ways this type of break could be structured and the benefits some schools have already seen.

A look at play-based learning for teens

In early childhood education, the benefits of play-based learning are often discussed, including how it helps develop social-emotional and cognitive skills, but why should we not extend those same benefits to teens? Skills such as collaboration, problem-solving, and building empathy can be embedded in project-based learning and interdisciplinary lessons, but play-based learning encourages self-directed, experiential learning that ignites imagination and creativity. It promotes independence and allows students to connect with others in different ways.

Imagine if every middle school and high school had a fifteen-minute break where students could participate in team-building activities or explore new hobbies. It may sound far-fetched, but some schools are actually creating this type of recess or brain break for teens.

Montpelier High School in Vermont, which operates on a block schedule with 85-minute blocks for class time, has an extra fifteen minutes built into their schedule that they use for a break called “Unplugged.” The time is used for activities like yoga, board games, and theater improvisation. Some activities are proposed and led by students while others are teacher-initiated; all are supervised by adults. As a result of “Unplugged,” students and staff have said they’ve felt more connected to their learning community and have felt re-energized. Check out Edutopia’s clip featuring MHS’s “Unplugged” and hear more from students and staff.

Even a fifteen-minute physical activity break can make an impact

While some may say that teens get enough physical activity through physical education class and sports, P.E. is often not required at all grade levels and not every student participates in sports. Many students in low-income, urban areas often don’t have safe places to engage in physical activities outside of school and lack the resources to go to recreational facilities. Even just fifteen minutes more per school day translates to an extra 75 minutes a week, 300 minutes per month, and 45 hours per school year. Physical activity releases endorphins in the brain which can boost students’ moods. While that alone should never be seen as a quick fix for students struggling in any way, it certainly can help improve their outlook on a daily basis.

Taking a break in order to de-stress

“Recess would give students a moment to decompress from a busy and sometimes stressful learning day,” says Texas-based teacher Kimberly Arkadie, a Concordia University-Portland alum who teaches eighth-grade math. Another alum, Nicole Lyttle, agrees and has seen the benefits of a mid-morning break. Lyttle is a middle school P.E. teacher in California and she finds her school’s nutrition break particularly helpful for its youngest students. “Sixth graders have a tough transition from elementary school to middle school, especially socially! These kids need breaks throughout the day because of the academic rigor. Classes can be a bit overwhelming, and [our school’s] nutrition break is what they need to catch their breath.”

Teens have to learn how to cope with stress in healthy ways instead of burying emotions and trudging on. A break could give them time to focus on how they’re feeling, working through those emotions productively. Through a trauma-informed practice, students can learn to be resilient by recognizing what their triggers are, especially since there are a variety of traumas that many students face from food insecurity to abuse.

Some schools are building in a break where the entire school engages in meditation. One example is Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco, California. Since 2007, they’ve implemented meditation through “Quiet Time,” which lasts for twelve minutes at the beginning of the day and again at the end of the day. They’ve seen many positive results and they’ve cut their truancy rate by more than half, reducing it to 7%. Meanwhile, California’s truancy rate has increased since 2007 to a staggering 30%. Suspensions have also been reduced at VVMS by more than half, going from 13% (on par with the state’s rate), down to just 6%.

Meditation has helped many of these students and provides them with a healthy coping mechanism. Meditation can be beneficial for anyone, but it is especially helpful for VVMS students since many of them have lost family and friends to gun violence. In the 2002-2003 school year, 41 murders occurred in the school’s neighborhood. By instituting “Quiet Time,” they’re helping students feel safer and more in touch with how they’re feeling. “I definitely saw a correlation between their behavior and being more manageable in class after they started meditating,” says Rose Ludwig, a sixth-grade teacher at VVMS. Hear more from this school’s students and staff in this inspiring clip.

Addressing the potential for bullying and fights

For schools that worry about bullying or fighting during a mid-morning break, consider implementing a student ambassador program so that teens are trained to look out for and support their peers, helping to shift the school culture. One example is a program called “Link Crew. High school seniors are trained and serve as mentors for incoming freshmen and then connect with them throughout the school year. On the middle school level, there’s  “WEB” (Where Everybody Belongs). WEB Leaders are trained eighth graders who help sixth graders.

These programs, created by the Boomerang Project, have seen a great deal of success. Link Crew operates in over 3,000 high schools across the U.S. and in other countries like Canada and China. Many schools have reported a decrease in fights, suspensions, and freshman failure rates. WEB programs have also been successful and are run in over 1,700 middle schools. They’ve seen positive results reported by schools like Valley Middle School in Carlsbad, California, which saw a 93% decrease in sixth-grade suspensions.

Recess or a mid-morning break can take on many forms in middle school and high school, and it’s time we start analyzing our bell schedules and instructional minutes, asking ourselves how can we better serve our students so that they can become healthier individuals in every way. As San Francisco Unified School District’s Superintendent Carlos Garcia says, “If we continue to do what we’ve always done, we’re always going get what we always got. Is that good enough? I don’t think it’s good enough for the 21st century. We need to be the outliers to try things that have never been tried and see if they work.”

Kara Wyman earned a MEd and a BA from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She spent a decade working with adolescents as an English teacher, the founder, and director of a drama program, a curriculum designer, and a project manager for a teen-centered nonprofit organization. She’s served as the Alumni and Community Manager for Concordia University-Portland and is now the managing editor of Concordia’s Room 241 blog.

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