School's Out: The Loss of Recess in America
The Elimination of Recess: No Time to Play
Amount of Play: A Poll
How Many Recesses Does Your Child Get?
No Play Allowed
My six year old son was ecstatic when warmer weather swept over our part of the country. “We might get to go outside to the playground!” he shouted, enthusiastically. He could barely contain his joy as he ran for the bus on his way to school. The last time he went outside during school hours was in October – approximately six months ago.
How can a Kindergarten-aged child not see the great outdoors during school hours for six entire months, one might ask, as the children must surely get outside during recess time? Unfortunately, many states have eliminated the concept of recess, as unstructured play time is not viewed as necessary in an era where test scores and academic performance are valued above all.
My child does have a physical education class, as our state (New York) mandates a minimum of 120 minutes of physical activity each week for children. PE class is highly structured and usually involves running the track in good weather, or playing indoor games in the winter. Free play is certainly not on the agenda for any part of a child’s school day.
My little boy’s bus arrived on our street at 4:00pm, and he was rather dejected. “We didn’t play outside today. Some kids were noisy so we had to stay inside.” His teacher, with few disciplinary weapons to employ, had taken away the children’s outdoor playtime as a consequence for rowdy behavior. I doubt the irony struck him: he removed the kids’ only physical outlet as a punishment for being hyperactive and out of control.
Schools Without Playgrounds
Chicago, Illinois was one of the first cities to eliminate recess from the school day. For nearly three decades, most Chicago public schools have not allowed recess for their youngest students.
In 2011, Chicago schools reintroduced the concept of recess to children. While the kids were giddy about obtaining some unstructured free time to play, they lacked the physical space and equipment necessary for physical activity. Most schools simply have broken concrete and parking lots – though a few schools do have turf to play on. Chicago schools face the difficulty of providing space for youngsters to play. In addition, today’s children have no knowledge of traditional playground games such as four-square and dodge-ball. Some schools are hiring recess coaches to re-teach these long-lost games to a generation deprived of play.
The situation is not unique to Chicago – playgrounds in Atlanta, Georgia have fallen silent as recess has utterly disappeared. New school buildings in the Altanta area are built without any playgrounds at all.
Socialization Benefits of Free Play
The Benefits of Play
School districts claim that cutting recess time is necessary to boost test scores and to compete with students around the globe. The biggest question remains: is removing recess beneficial to test scores and student performance?
The answer, according to many recent studies, is a resounding “no.” Unorganized free play (otherwise known as recess) has a positive educational impact on children. Two studies, performed in 1993 and 1995 (Pellegrini and Davis, 1993, and Pellegrini, Huberty, and Jones, 1995), demonstrated children became less attentive the longer they attended to a standardized task. Once the children had been allowed to play for a period of time, they became attentive to class work again.
Children also learn how to cooperate with peers on the playground. The familiar rules of common playground games (such as four-square) provide a framework for interacting with unfamiliar children – this sort of cooperative interaction is necessary for children to develop social skills.
Classroom behavior also improves dramatically when children are given recess breaks. The journal Pediatrics published a study demonstrating that 8 and 9 year old children had better behavior scores when given at least one recess period of at least 15 minutes in length.
The Role of Play in a Kindergarten Classroom
Required Recess: A Few States Take the Lead
It might come as a shock, but very few states actually require recess. Illinois, Louisiana, and Missouri are the only states which actually require time slotted to free-play at school. California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Kansas, Montana, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Virginia all have “recommendations” for recess, though it is not a requirement. The remaining states do not recommend or require recess for children in public schools.
Add in the fact that most United States public schools do not require physical education classes and children participate in ever-expanding school days, and the childhood obesity epidemic begins to make sense. Only six states require students to participate in at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week, as per the recommendation of the National Association of Sports and Physical Activity. In case you’re wondering, the six states that meet the guidelines are Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Iowa.
Taking a Break
Lunch Time: A Poll
How Long is Your Child's Lunch Break?
10 Minute Lunches: Taking it to the Extreme
Some schools have gone so far as to curtail lunch time, with some students having as little as 9 minutes to eat their lunch. Children cannot possibly eat properly in this period of time; coupled with the lack of play time, children are forced into a long “work-day” with few breaks to eat or stretch their legs.
At a Minneapolis school, two sixth grade girls wrote to the Star Tribune to state that 10 minute lunches were a common occurrence. The school officially slates 15 minutes for lunch time, but the children often only have 10 minutes to eat their food. The school superintendent investigated the claim and found that it was true: a solution is currently being evaluated. 15 minute lunches are the rule for many school districts: cutting down on lunch time is yet another way to increase the amount of time in the classroom. Unfortunately, having ten minutes for lunch and little recess has detrimental effects for our children’s health and nutrition. With so little time to eat, kids often scarf down their favorite foods and drop the rest in the garbage. Healthy food that takes a longer time to eat (such as a whole, unpeeled apple) is often traded in for a quicker, less healthy option (canned fruit cocktail in sugary syrup sauce).
It is astounding that we allow our children to attend school for nearly 8 hours every day and provide them with a mere 15 minutes for lunch and little (or no) recess time. If an employer treated an adult, consenting employee in this manner, it would be illegal. The US Department of Labor states a bona-fide meal period is at least 30 minutes in length. Most states require a minimum 30 minute lunch break during a standard work day, with the meal break occurring within a specified time period.
Chicago Schools Reinstate Recess: Student Responses
The Importance of Play: Bringing Back Recess
As school days lengthen, some school districts are beginning to see the light. Chicago is currently in the throes of instituting the concept of recess in its schools after a thirty-year absence. Still, many schools struggle with juggling the federally recommended 90-minute reading instruction, standards-based curriculum, and the need for play. Still, the benefits of recess are displayed in increased test scores. Truthfully, there is absolutely no academic indication for the removal of recess from a student's school day.
In the end, it was a parent-led initiative started by Patricia O'Keefe of Raise Your Hand that restored recess to the Chicago Public School system.
As for my own son? Fortunately, his school does have a playground. Hopefully his class will be quiet today so he can enjoy a few minutes on the playground as a reward. Recess is still not a requirement in the state of New York, so he will likely spend most of his day sitting at a table, attention waning as he stares at the playground equipment outside his classroom window.