Give Kids a Break

By Drew Lindsay — September 01, 1994 8 min read
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Anthony Pellegrini is a flake. At least, that’s what some acquaintances conclude after learning that his life’s work is studying children’s recess play. Somehow, research focusing on playground games lacks the intellectual heft that people expect from a serious scholar.

“It’s like studying coffee breaks,” says Pellegrini, a professor of elementary education at the University of Georgia. “People say, ‘Isn’t that a stupid thing to study?’”

But recently, the study of recess has become a serious matter. Like many education traditions, recess is on trial in schools across the country. And with educators under pressure to pack their days with instruction, even a few minutes of playtime can be judged as too much.

In Pellegrini, though, parents, teachers, and administrators who support recess have found a star witness for the defense. In the past few years, pleas for help from all over the country have been coming into his Athens, Ga., office.

A handful of other researchers dabble in the study of playtime at school. But Pellegrini is the one constructing a raison d’etre for recess. His research confirms what recess supporters have said all along: Children need frequent breaks from the classroom to learn best. But it also hints at a corollary: Children need to play to learn best. If this hypothesis holds up, it might secure recess’s place in the school day once and for all.

Until recently, a chance for children to run and play seemed so fundamental to the school day that educators gave recess no more than a passing thought. But in the late 1980s, scattered schools trimmed recess from the day, citing either violence on the playground or the need for more classroom instruction. Recess had never been a source of controversy in the past, so the National Association of Elementary School Principals, for one, wasn’t prepared for the debate these decisions generated. “We started to get calls, particularly from parents trying to reinstate recess,” says June Million, a spokeswoman for the NAESP. “They wanted to know what we thought. So, we had to start thinking about it.”

The NAESP surveyed 383 of its members in 1991 and found that nearly two in three believed the practice had “educational value”; the group eventually endorsed recess. The National Association for the Education of Young Children has taken a similar stance.

But even endorsement from two such influential groups has not anchored recess in the school day. Last December, for example, education officials in Connecticut revised a policy that allowed schools to count recess as instructional time. As a result, elementary schools in Manchester, Conn., outside Hartford, dropped a 15-minute recess, the only free-play period apart from the lunch break. Manchester school officials say they looked for other ways to squeeze in additional classroom time, but their schools’ six-hour day already made it tough to meet the state’s minimum annual requirement of 900 hours of instruction.

“We really didn’t have options,” explains Sally Doyen, director of curriculum and development for the 7,500-student district. “Our day is short as it is, and, needing to accomplish a lot, we did not have anything else that we could cut.”

The small cadre of researchers who study recess say school officials too often make such decisions capriciously and with no solid evidence to back them up. The elder statesman of this group is Brian Sutton Smith, an emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has retired to Florida. Throughout his career, Smith has written more than 20 books and dozens of journal articles reviewing the history of children’s play and how it contributes to their development.

His former student Ann Richman Beresin is the new kid on the block, having recently completed her Ph.D. dissertation on the culture of the playground. Although Beresin did not set out to study violence on the playground, her research pokes a hole in the common theory that school recess is a time when kids fight.

During a year spent videotaping recess at an urban Pennsylvania elementary school, Beresin discovered that while the children she watched often roughhoused during recess, the real violence—the fights, the brawls—almost always began after the bell rang to end recess.

“You could clock it and predict when the actual violence would appear,” Beresin says. Inevitably, as children clumped together to file back into the school building, pushes and shoves that earlier had been part of play now provoked fights. In her interviews with children, Beresin discovered a strong anxiety over that transition time. “For many of them, that one moment was the worst part of the entire school day,” she says. “Surely, a lot of that comes from having to stop playing and doing your own thing. But part of it also came from an incredible dislike for the craziness of that lining-up period.”

Although others have contributed studies to the understanding of recess, Pellegrini is the one researcher who has tackled the question of whether recess has educational value. “We don’t know anything about this,” he says. “We’re playing this stupid game where we don’t know what we’re doing, yet what we’re doing has a massive effect on kids.”

In most battles over eliminating or trimming recess, he says, the opposing sides traffic in myths, not facts. According to Pellegrini, the pro-recess camp invariably cites a version of the “surplus-energy theory,” which holds that kids need to blow off steam after sustained periods of inactivity. But the theory was conceived almost a century ago. Despite its common-sense appeal, Pellegrini says, the scientific models supporting it have eroded over the years.

Schools that cancel recess, meanwhile, often give in to what Pellegrini says is the myth that student achievement will improve with more instruction and less recreation. “We have this moronic back-to-basics argument,” he contends, “and we think that what kids need is more drill and practice.”

Critics of recess often point to Japanese schools as exemplary institutions of such industriousness, Pellegrini adds. But, he says, they don’t realize that students in Japan get a 10- or 15-minute recess every 45 minutes. “They have this idea that if we get rid of recess, we’ll improve kids’ achievement.” Pellegrini first found evidence of the educational value of recess to refute the critics in his 1992 study of kindergarten students’ social interactions and play habits during recess. His research team kept watch over 24 public school 5-year-olds for two years, whispering into tape recorders to note which children stayed close by adult playground aides, which children played alone, and which children played with peers.

The results indicated that kindergartners’ social behavior at recess is a sure tip-off to their future academic ability. Children who braved the new world of the playground—either learning to play by themselves or with equipment or their peers—fared better on 1st grade achievement tests than children who dared not leave the adult’s side. “It seems to make sense that when kids have to go out and interact with other kids, there is a fair amount of social, cognitive work that gets done,” Pellegrini says. “When kids have to cooperate and interact together, it’s much more demanding on them mentally than when a teacher does that for them.”

A 1993 study that Pellegrini conducted with Patricia Davis, a former colleague at the University of Georgia and an elementary school teacher, offered even more evidence. The study, a 14-week observation of 23 students in 3rd grade, tested the effects of classroom “confinement” on children’s playground behavior.

Pellegrini and two other researchers observed the children at three different times: the half-hour of classwork before recess, the half-hour of recess, and the half-hour of classwork after recess. At different points in the study, they changed the length of time the children spent in the classroom before recess with “confinements” lasting either two and a half or three hours. In the classroom, the research team systematically scored the children’s concentration levels by recording telltale clues of attentiveness. Students who squirmed in their seats, tapped their feet or pencils, or scratched their heads would receive points on the “fidget” scale, while students who turned their head 90 degrees perpendicular to their task would get a low score on the “concentration” rating. On the playground, the researchers checked off six factors, including how long the children played, whether the play involved social interaction with peers, and whether it was vigorous or sedentary.

The study’s results offered one conclusion that teachers probably already know: The longer the children were confined, the more fidgets and squirms the observers noted. The lesson, according to Pellegrini, was clear: “Kids learn better when you break up what they have to learn.” What was less clear from the study was what kind of break helps students return to the classroom ready to learn. The children who played hard at recess were generally less attentive once back inside. Those who pursued less active, more social activities, meanwhile, were more attentive in the classroom.

Pellegrini warns that these observations don’t yield solid conclusions. But like his earlier study on kindergarten play habits, this evidence supports the notion that peer interactions at recess do contribute to learning. “That may be the crucial element,” he says. “It may not be running around that’s important at recess. It may be that this is a time when kids have to go out and initiate and respond to their peers with minimal adult mediation.”

To further explore peer interaction and other links between recess and learning, Pellegrini is busy designing more study proposals—projects that will perpetuate his image as someone who toils in the trivial.

“What’s going on in recess has educational value,” he says. “Whether kids are actually learning something or practicing something they already know, what’s going on out there is important.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as Give Kids a Break


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