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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

I Failed Recess...Because I Don’t Play!

By Peter DeWitt — October 25, 2011 4 min read
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Growing up with four older siblings was always interesting. At a young age I learned how to share, and privacy was non-existent until a few older siblings got married and moved out of the house. My brother Jody is three years older, although everyone thinks he’s younger, and we spent a great deal of time together as kids.

He lives in Bahrain but we still talk and see each other often considering the distance and he still tortures me from time to time. One of his usual lines is is, “I failed recess...you know why? Because I don’t play!” Now you understand why I used that title for this blog.

The reality is less and less students are getting a chance to play at recess because more and more schools are replacing it with more class time. In an effort to accommodate stronger mandates, schools are pushing more academic time into the school day. Without the extension of a school day something has to be taken out of the schedule and recess is the first thing to go.

In the long run, replacing recess with more academic time may not actually increase achievement within schools. It may increase test scores, but I believe there is a lot more to achievement than high test scores. Not to sound critical, but if test scores are the only priority, I feel that is a sign of a lack of achievement.

The Importance of Recess
I have spent seventeen years in the elementary school setting, both suburban and urban. As a classroom teacher, the last thing I would do is take away recess in order to make students finish class work. There were often many reasons why a student was not completing work, especially if it was a worksheet. I realized I had to change my practice of offering a worksheet in order to build engagement. Once I did that, I had fewer students not completing tasks.

As a principal, I would never replace recess for more academic time because I strongly believe children need to get outside every day in order to get fresh air, have fun with friends, and work off their energy in order to have a better balance in life. We all need a break from our day to day activities.

To be perfectly honest, I believe we are robbing children of their childhood when we cancel recess in order to shove more test prep, worksheets, and other subject areas down their throats in order to raise test scores and prove that somehow our school is better than all of the rest.

Taking away recess from a school day may sound like an easy fix but it has strong implications for the rest of the day, and although I’m sure there is research out there in academia to support my answer, I have seen the impact of recess on a daily basis to know that I am correct. Running, playing, and getting to know peers out of the realm of a classroom is important for a child’s development.

Increased Mandates, Less Fun
I often hear from non-educators who want to know why I have such a huge problem with high stakes testing and standards. To be honest, I do not have an issue with standards if, by having them, we are able to correct some of the inequalities that happen in school settings around the country. I’ve never been a fan of high stakes testing because I see the stress it creates for children and adults.

The largest problem I have with the increased mandates is what we can no longer do in order to get things done that do not seem beneficial to students. I have seen administrators cancel something as sacred (yes...sacred) as recess in order to spend more time pushing academics. I believe this creates an imbalance in a child’s life because many students do not get the opportunity to go outside when they get home (i.e. living in unsafe neighborhoods, parents are not home, etc.) which could be a subject for another blog.

If we wonder why we have students who are disconnected form us it is because some of us are choosing to create situations for students where they do not get an opportunity to connect with the larger world, which is what recess does for children.

What Do Students Learn at Recess?
There are many benefits to bringing students outside for 25 to 30 minutes a day, five days a week. They learn how to play games with friends, and they also learn how to interact with new peers that may not be in the same classroom. In addition, they learn how to work out their problems out at recess. It is a place where they can test out the problem solving skills that we teach them during the day.

The downside to recess is that is one place where bullying takes place. However, the positives far outweigh the negatives when looking at recess because students learn how to connect with nature, and recess is sometimes one of the only places where some of our students thrive in this high stakes testing world that has been created for us.

When schools take away recess, it symbolizes that we have really created a situation where we are ruining childhood. We are teaching our young people that class work and testing is the only thing that matters, and when a student doesn’t fit into that mold, they begin to believe that they no longer matter to us.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.