Skip to main content

School's Out: The Loss of Recess in America

Time to play: recess is vital for children's physical and social development. As an added benefit, it boosts academic performance. Sadly, many schools are eliminating recess.

Time to play: recess is vital for children's physical and social development. As an added benefit, it boosts academic performance. Sadly, many schools are eliminating recess.

The Elimination of Recess: No Time to Play

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 playtime 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 pm, 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 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 have fallen silent as recess has utterly disappeared. New school buildings in the Atlanta area are built without any playgrounds at all.

Free play allows children to socialize with kids and resolve conflict. Many important peer-interaction skills are learned in the sandbox (or on the playground).

Free play allows children to socialize with kids and resolve conflict. Many important peer-interaction skills are learned in the sandbox (or on the playground).

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.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Wehavekids

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 from difficult cognitive tasks allows a child to refocus and improves attentiveness throughout the day.

Taking a break from difficult cognitive tasks allows a child to refocus and improves attentiveness throughout the day.

10 Minute Lunches: Taking It to the Extreme

Some schools have gone so far as to curtail lunchtime, 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 playtime, 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 lunchtime, 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.

Fifteen-minute lunches are the rule for many school districts: cutting down on lunchtime is yet another way to increase the amount of time in the classroom. Unfortunately, having 10 minutes for lunch and little recess has detrimental effects on 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 longer 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 bonafide meal period is at least 30 minutes in length. Most states require a minimum 30-minute lunch break during a standard workday, 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.

Questions & Answers

Question: Would this be a good article to use for an essay?

Answer: You could definitely use this article to give you an idea for an essay, especially if your essay is about the benefits of free play for children and the need for physical activity in educational settings.


Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on March 30, 2014:

Tracie, the lack of recess is a passionate issue for me. I have two young boys in school, and they are not guaranteed physical activity on a regular basis. They do get 20 minutes of organized activity in gym class, but there is no free time or the ability to socialize. They do not make friends in school, as there is no time to play or socialize with peers while running through their two-hour blocks of math and reading. The day is extremely long, and my first grader has over an hour of homework each night. The amount of homework also precludes extracurricular sports activities.. so that "doing dittos" is the primary activity my children are engaged in completing - from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm!

Tracie Bruno from Delaware on March 19, 2014:

Let's add to that "workday. My children are in school from 8:30-3:30, have maybe 30 minutes for lunch, maybe a 20 minute recess break, come home and have another 1 to 2 hours of homework.

The media talks a lot about childhood obesity, and the importance of family time, but the school day takes up most of our child's waking moments. By the time they have finished with school, homework, and dinner, it's time for bed. When you squeeze in extra-curricular like sports or scouts, the family is running at a frantic pace.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on January 21, 2014:

The days are extremely long for my children. They are ages 6 and 8 and do not get any regularly scheduled recess. They do have a physical education class 4 days out of a 6 day cycle, but that is 40 minutes of organized activity - not free play on a routine basis. Our test results have not improved despite longer days, excessive homework, etc. The number of children medicated for ADD/ADHD has increased. My children do 2-hour blocks of instruction for math and reading - with no break to release energy or to build social relationships. It is a travesty, Lexi Sullivan.

Lexi Sullivan on January 21, 2014:

This is ridiculous. I'm still in school, over in Australia and I would never survive without my recesses and lunches. We get about twenty minutes and fifty five minutes breaks respectively, and everyone is all the better for it. If they took our breaks away, no doubt people would be hungry, restless and unwilling to cooperate. Improving test results? Good luck doing that with cooped up kids

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on October 10, 2012:

Renee Wright, it is very sad when a group of administrators make a decision from an office, without ever realizing how that decision impacts the day-to-day lives of teachers and students. I know the common core curriculum standards are pressing down mightily on the teachers in our own district. My Kindergartener has homework every night, though fortunately he has never missed a recess yet (he is my youngest son). My oldest son frequently missed recess in his Kindergarten class, and it was a real hardship. Fortunately, his teacher seems to have made sufficient time for play in his first grade classroom. I am so grateful, as it helps him attend to his academic tasks!

ReneeWright on September 17, 2012:

I teach school in southwest Louisiana. Our administration has denied us the right to take our children outside to play. Our system is so focused on test scores that they yet to realize that play is an integral part of the learning process. Children need social skills as well as incidental learning which creative play promotes. I am saddened by the turn in education and the importance being placed on a score rather than the development of the "total" child. Sometimes it is not the teacher's choice.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on May 26, 2012:

I will say that my son's note to his teacher was quite effective - he simply wrote a note that said, "Thank you for taking us outside" (in his own creative spelling) and his class has been outside every single day since he brought in his note! My son is learning that the pen is mightier than the sword, and the kids are all a bit happier from playing in the great outdoors!

Rose Clearfield from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on May 26, 2012:

Leah, that's great that you do live in a nature filled area so your kids get that time in the woods. You're right, though, that it still doesn't help with breaking up the school day. I hope that enough people do push to bring back recess that we still see a significant change in many school schedules.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on May 20, 2012:

Roxi, my children's school is similar. There isn't a "no-recess" policy, per se, but there are also no planned recess times. The teacher may take them out if they have time and the teacher is so inclined - but any slight infraction or a day filled with too many worksheets means that the kids stay inside. There is absolutely no requirement for recess, and I feel that recess should be an integral part of the school day for young children.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on May 20, 2012:

Randomcreative, I am very glad that we live in an area filled with nature. My kids do get out into the woods at home, but I do wish they had more access to free play during their (long) school day. As more parents lobby to bring back recess, I think we will see a return to more reasonable academic days for young children.

RoxiM from West Virginia on May 20, 2012:

I have worked as a substitute teacher for the past 4 years, and I have seen the effects of the no-recess policies. While our school district doesn't have a policy against recess, it is seen as a privilege that can be taken away for the entire class because of a few students who misbehave. In my opinion, the out-of-control behaviors and lack of attention in class could easily be cured by a 15 to 20 minute recess break. Even when the weather's bad, kids need some down-time during the day.

Rose Clearfield from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on May 20, 2012:

That sounds like a very interesting book. I am glad to live in a neighborhood now where a lot of kids do get outside and play a lot. It seems like that's less and less true in more places.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on May 20, 2012:

I know my two boys always attend better and have a happier day at school when they have been able to go outside. There is a book called "nature deficit disorder" that I want to get, because it discusses the disconnect many children have with the great outdoors in modern times. Recess is at least one way to let kids burn off some energy and spend some unstructured time in an otherwise extremely structured day. Thanks for the comment, randomcreative!

Rose Clearfield from Milwaukee, Wisconsin on May 19, 2012:

I couldn't agree with you more. It is so important to students have regular breaks throughout the school day and that those breaks involve the opportunity for unstructured free play. You are absolutely right about how much students need that time to develop. I also agree with you about the cuts to lunch time. Giving students 10 minutes to eat and then sending them right back to class just isn't right. As someone with a background in education, it really saddens me how many teachers and administrators I've met who don't understand the importance of these concepts.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on May 19, 2012:

It is rather depressing - schools are a shadow of what they used to be. Fortunately, our local school is fabulous in every way - except for the lack of recess. There are some teachers within the school who take their children out every day, but it is really left up to the teacher (and the teachers are pressured to get the kids to meet state testing guidelines). Our kids do get music and art - but we also live in one of the highest taxed states in the nation. As more of the pensioners leave the state (collecting their pensions, but not contributing to the consumer base), our schools are going to be faced with the same situation. Now, if only they'd cut administration costs rather than art class! Thanks for the comment, BizGenGirl!

PermissionGiver from Lake Stevens on May 18, 2012:

Geez, here in Seattle they already took away Music and Art classes for most schools do to "lack of funding" (then again, anyone could check the news and see that we give them more than enough money and they squander and waste it). If they took away Recess that'd be it for me. I already want to homeschool my son, but he loves going to school because he gets to Play At Recess. If school were just about learning, I'd want no part in it, lol.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on May 18, 2012:

aethelthryth, it is amazing what kids can learn from unstructured play time. My boys have constructed fantastic forts and "obstacle courses" in our backyard when they don't have school. They really learn a lot of things while they play!

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on May 18, 2012:

Polly, it seems so insane, doesn't it? Very few states have a requirement for recess. I do believe most schools incorporate some free play into the day, but many do not. The pressure to create longer academic days and to raise test scores has really hurt recess. My children only have 1 organized gym period per day.

aethelthryth from American Southwest on May 18, 2012:

One of my most memorable lessons in elementary school was the geology I saw in action when a water pipe broke above the sandbox and for a couple days we had a model Grand Canyon complete with Colorado River on the playground. The mud on all of us must have been an awful mess, but nobody stopped our recess, so we went on learning.

Polly C from UK on May 18, 2012:

I was totally shocked when I read this, I can hardly believe young children would not have a regular break for play in school. I have two children and am in the UK - every child has at least two breaks per day to play outside, sometimes three. My son has always had one 15 min break in the morning, an hour for lunch until he was 11 when it went down to 45 mins, and I think he used to have a break in the afternoon when he was really young as well. The children also have two hours of separate PE lessons during the school week. I agree that unstructured play is essential for learning, and that it is important for children to spend time outdoors. It helps them to concentrate. I had never heard of this happening in schools before.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on May 18, 2012:

Anglnwu, I was shocked when my kids started school and I realized there was no time for free play. The only children who get regular "free" time are the kids in pre-kindergarten (preschool, if you will). Once the kids are five years old, they are assigned to a formalized gym/physical education program and no longer have the luxury of free play. It is a very sad thing, in my opinion.

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on May 18, 2012:

Izettl, play is important: I feel that our kids are going to develop soft bodies and soft minds - the mind will not absorb what the seat cannot endure!

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on May 18, 2012:

Teachers certainly have a hard job in front of them: state performance standards and requirements to teach to the test, kids who come from homes that don't value education, and a bureaucratic system that ties their hands in many cases. Education in America is certainly a system fraught with difficulties - and certainly recess is not the cause of falling test scores. I think that parents need to work hand-in-hand with teachers and be involved with the school district.

Many parents work full time and have difficulty maintaining contact with their child's teachers and with the administration. Some schools make contact difficult: entering and exiting the school building may be restricted, even for parents of current students. I know that volunteers for my children's class parties must be FBI background checked prior to helping out in the classroom. There are a lot of barriers separating parents from teachers, and teachers from parents.

My children, fortunately, are doing extremely well in school. I am fortunate enough to be a stay-at-home mom, which means I have the time to regularly stay in contact with the school and volunteer on the premises. Other parents are not so fortunate, and don't have the luxury of time to "stop in" for a visit every week.

I do believe that recess has no bearing on the drop-out rate: kids who have access to free time perform better in school (and it may give some kids incentive to attend school, as they enjoy socializing with friends).

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on May 18, 2012:

I agree, Jeannieinabottle - quality must trump quantity. We keep adding hours and days to the school year with little improvement in test scores. Cutting recess certainly only harms the very young - kids need exercise and a few moments to refresh their minds in the great outdoors!

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on May 18, 2012:

Starmom, I agree. Objective research has demonstrated that behavior scores improve with regular recess. The kids would do so much better with regular breaks to play!

Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on May 18, 2012:

Peggy, I am happy to report that my son has been outside every day since he sent his letter to the teacher. The lack of a requirement for recess is astounding: we are talking about five year old children, for goodness sake! These small children go to school for seven hours per day (eight hours per day including the bus ride), and the work:play ratio seems a bit crazy for five year old children. Remember when kindergarten involved finger painting? Now it involves reading and addition: it truly is the new first grade!

anglnwu on May 18, 2012:

How could they take away recess during school hours? That was my best and favorite subject! So sad that even educators don't recognize the value of free play. It may seem nonproductive in terms of academic and test scores but i know that they're an analyst to better learning. Thanks for sharing this interesting topic.

L Izett from The Great Northwest on May 18, 2012:

play is the number one way children learn. We're going to find out it will be like obesity. More healthy foods and choices and knowledge about food and people got fatter. Add more academics and less play, kids will get dumber.