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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The True Loss of Recess

By Peter DeWitt — June 12, 2012 6 min read
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“Class size. Standardized testing. The three R’s. When most people talk about how to improve education, they tend to focus only on what happens in the classroom. But the most unexpected opportunity to boost learning lies outside the classroom: on the playground at recess” (The State of Play. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation).

Talking about recess and play is a popular topic. It gives us the opportunity to discuss days of old when we were younger, and how our parents told us to leave the house in the morning and never asked us to come back until dinner time. It’s a lot like saying we walked to school three miles in the snow, uphill...both ways. All of those stories make it sound like life was much tougher when we were younger.

Perhaps the biggest issue is that we are watching childhood change. We hear that kids these days are coddled and bubble wrapped. They get a trophy for showing up, all of which may be true. However, I would venture to guess that when we were children, there were adults who felt the same about us.

Not all of this is bad. When I was younger my parents owned a big brown station wagon and my brother and I had to sit in the back seat, which faced the traffic behind us, and we only had lap belts. Perhaps our parents were trying to tell us something? Perhaps seeing cars speeding up behind us ready to rear end the big brown boat was a way to build character?

The truth is that kids may be sheltered but they are also directed through every part of their day and have less playtime than we ever used to. Some of these changes are due to a change in parenting style, but other changes are due to increased mandates and more curriculum.

The Power of Play
“Recess has traditionally served as the one outlet during the school day when kids get to recharge their bodies and minds. But those minutes have been steadily eroding. Up to 40 percent of U.S. school districts have reduced or eliminated recess in order to free up more time for core academics, and one in four elementary schools no longer provides recess to all grades” (Zygmunt-Fillwalk and Bidello, 2005; McKenzie and Kahan, 2008. Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, 2010).

One of the things that was important back then, and is still important today, is play. As principals begin to build master schedules for the 2012-2013 school year, they should make sure that they are scheduling in playtime for students, because given the increase in high stakes testing and push down of curriculum that may not always be age appropriate, play is the best way to alleviate the stress that comes with it.

In 2010, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation published a Gallup Survey of elementary principals on the topic of recess. This Gallup Survey was completed with the help of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) and Playworks. 1,951 elementary school principals were surveyed on their thoughts about recess, which included how recess has changed and whether it can be improved to better meet the needs of our students.

As much as there are many benefits to recess, principals know that recess has its drawbacks as well. It is often the place where they receive the most discipline referrals because kids do not always know how to play well with one another. Recess is also one of the areas where bullying happens because kids can hide from the adults who are supposed to be supervising them. “Principals report that the majority of discipline-related problems occur outside of class time (87%) with the majority of those occurring during recess or lunch (89%).”

So how do principals work on the negative aspects and focus on the positive? It’s easy to do away with recess because there are discipline issues that take place. However, we understand that cancelling recess will do more harm than good. Recess provides students with a much needed break, and it also allows them the exercise they need. We can’t have students sitting at desks all day and expect them to learn. There needs to be a balance between sitting in class and allowing them to go outside to play.

In the survey, principals offered the following suggestions to improve recess:

  • Number of staff to monitor recess - schools should make sure that they have good staff to student ratios to make sure that students are being properly supervised.
  • Better equipment - Students need equipment where they can safely play without the worry of hurting themselves. It should also be equipment that students will want to play on.
  • Playground management training - Staff need to know how to properly manage students while out at recess. Whether that means dealing with discipline issues, mediating between two students who are arguing, or knowing how to play organized games like kickball, flag football, etc.

Many schools provide training to their support staff during professional development days. As much as staff knows how to help students in the classroom, the “just go and play” attitude doesn’t work when students are fighting. All staff needs to be trained on how to manage behavior and engage kids in active play.

In addition, Playworks, NAESP and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have some recommendations for principals. They are:

It’s time for education policymakers at all levels to take play seriously.
Between clinical evidence and the direct input of our nation’s principals, the benefits of recess are well documented. Recess should no longer be treated as an afterthought or an expendable block of time. Instead, it must be recognized as an essential part of the school day. In addition, schools should end the practice of taking recess away as punishment.

Schools should enhance recess to improve learning and school climate.

For all of its contributions to learning, recess is the single biggest source of student disciplinary problems. The good news is that schools could eliminate most of their behavioral headaches if they simply managed their recess more effectively.

The single best way to improve recess is to improve the way it is staffed.
Principals want more and better trained staff on the playground at recess. Because of today’s economic realities, many schools may not have the luxury of adding additional staff to recess. That makes it all the more important to ensure that adults on the playground at recess have the training necessary to manage it effectively. With limited and cost-effective training, schools could use existing staff to manage recess with even better results

(Robert Wood Johnson Foundation).

Schools have changed a great deal over the years. Many of us are concerned about high stakes testing, too much curriculum and the potential loss of creativity. In an effort to increase test scores, many schools are cancelling recess and replacing it with more class time. This is a mistake that will have long term negative effects on our students.

Recess is an important part of the school day. When done properly, recess can actually help students alleviate stress and help increase test scores. It is also an area where students can get involved in creative play and provides them with a break from class work. The more schools go in the direction of cancelling recess, the more our students will never have the opportunity to look back and think of their school days fondly.

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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.