Think Recess Doesn't Matter? Think Again


The asphalt yard was large and surrounded by a chain-link fence. A few weeds grew in the cracks. People mostly stood around the fence, looking out, or slumped on the steps. Except for the occasional fight that broke out, there was little activity. There were no trees, no grass, no sports courts, and devastatingly, no jungle gym

No, this wasn’t a prison yard. It was the playground at the elementary school where I taught. 

Some kids, when turned loose in the space, were inventive and played tag or created games. But overall, the level of activity was depressingly low. The conditions under which they were expected to play were not uncommon among schools with high minority or low-income populations: “The most vulnerable kids, those who come from minority or low-income families,” notes a report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “are the ones most likely to be shortchanged when it comes to recess.”

Anyone who has children or works with them knows how imperative movement is to young people’s well-being -- physically, psychologically, and it turns out, academically. One study found that exercise helped a group of students achieve the same academic scores as their peers in a control group, but with less study time. The students who exercised daily showed better overall attitudes, as well.

In a recent article for the Washington Post, pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom describes some of the problems with requiring children to sit all day in school. In addition to leaving children with underdeveloped sensory systems (a result of being deprived of regular, extended movement), Hanscom points out the bigger picture impact of our demand that children remain sedentary for hours at a time; namely, that those unreasonable expectations often cause children to lose self-esteem, and in some cases, give up on school entirely. 

We know all this is true. Yet we continue to starve children, particularly the poor ones, of much needed exercise. How is this allowed to happen?

Why the Children Aren’t Moving

In the school I taught in, a lack of adequate facilities wasn’t the only reason kids weren’t moving as much as they should have. Teachers, unfortunately, were in the habit of taking recess away as a consequence for children who didn’t do their homework or were acting up in class. I quickly realized how easy it was to fall into that trap. When we have few resources at our disposal to help us deal with unruly or disrespectful kids, the easiest “solution” is often to take away their recess. It was only later in my career that I realized how incredibly detrimental that is for the children involved, and indeed for the rest of the class, as the student’s behavior, further pent up from having no opportunity to “blow off steam,” then affected everyone else for the rest of the day.

Further complicating matters was the fact that like many elementary schools, thanks to severe budget cuts my school did not have the money for PE teachers, and few of our teachers were trained in teaching physical education. As a prerequisite for my credential program, I was required to take one undergraduate class on how to teach PE. That three-unit undergraduate class made up the entirety of my training to teach physical education. I received no further training during my credential program, nor any subsequent professional development in PE. This is a common situation among elementary school teachers, and results in school environments where there are few if any employees fully trained in how to lead students in physical activities.

Combine all these in-school factors with the increase of screen time for children and the lack of outdoor play, and children are clearly spending much less time moving overall. Against the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 68% of all American children under the age of two use screen media on a typical day, averaging more than two hours. Screen time increases as they get older, and American children between eight and 18 years old average over seven hours of screen time per day. All of this adds up to extremely sedentary children who suffer physically, socially and academically from this lifestyle. In fact, just one in three children are physically active every day. 

Solutions that Work

At my school, two things eventually happened to change the culture of recess and help our children get the play they needed. First, we got a grant to re-landscape the playground. We added grass, trees, four-square courts, hopscotch forms, a painted map of the United States, and a play structure. This gave the children something to do besides start arguments with each other, and I personally saw an improvement in my classroom’s behavior, especially in the time directly after recess.

Second, we got the organization Sports4Kids, now called Playworks, involved. Playworks, a nonprofit that serves low-income schools, provides trained coaches to schools. These coaches lead games and other organized play activities during recess, train students to be leaders so that even more organized play can happen, and provide after-school programs. All these aspects of the program helped our students improve their athletic skills, but in addition, gave them social skills and dramatically reduced the conflicts that tended to bleed into instructional time and distract the entire class from their academic pursuits.

Although the parents and students are a key part of ensuring a healthy activity level for our children, teachers and schools are a no less vital part of the solution. Since children are in school for most of the daylight hours, the opportunity to get outdoors for 20 minutes shouldn’t be viewed as a distraction from their academics, but an important part of growing up, and one which makes the rest of the day go more smoothly. These students need the opportunity, the place, and the support to enjoy the benefits of play time.

Teachers provide the opportunity. They need first to understand that the occasion for children’s play cannot be contingent on their ability to sit still at other times. Often, the children who have their recess time taken away are the ones who need that play time the most.  Instead of taking recess from them, we would be better served by lookingfor the root causes of why children aren’t doing homework or behaving well. Do they lack a place to do their homework? Is anyone at home able to help? Are they coming to school hungry or frightened? Are they being bullied or seeing bullying at home and imitating? Taking away recess won’t help fix any of these things. Trying to squeeze in one more lecture point when recess is on the schedule won’t help either—the kids’ minds are already outside, so their bodies should be, too.

The school is responsible for providing a safe, engaging space for kids to be able to run and play. Trees and plants provide a natural setting that helps relax students. While a fancy play structure might be beyond the means of many school budgets, the PTAand community organizations might be able to help raise funds or volunteer assembly help. Certain additions to our playground simply required some time and paint when funds were limited.

It seems almost counterintuitive that kids need coaching for how to play.  But a steady diet of TV and video games, coupled with the lack of safe outdoor spaces mean that some kids will have neither the repertoire of structured games nor the cultivated imagination for free play that many previous generations had growing up. Here again, when physical education funds have been cut from the budget and teachers lack training to lead groups of children in outdoor games, Parent Teacher Associations can come to the rescue with funding to pay for PE teachers. Playworks is another great source for schools with limited funds to get trained recess coaches. It offers direct services in 23 communities, and training nationwide.

Physical education is an essential component of elementary education, and there’s no doubt students are much better served if a trained teacher is leading the instruction. The benefits of PE aren’t limited to just burning off energy so that students can focus better in the classroom. Students also learn skills and try sports and other activities that they can continue long after the PE class is over, and this extra exercise plays an important role in the battle against obesity (low-income and minority students tend to suffer more from aliments caused by a lack of exercise).

Allowing the economic disparities of school and PTA budgets to determine which students get the opportunity and space for effective recess and PE is a gross injustice, and one that must be addressed by administrators and policy makers in the short term. It is easy for educators to suggest that nothing is more important than academic success, but academic learning never takes place inisolation. Making the most of their time on the playground and in the gym allows kids to make the most of their time in the classroom.

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