Time to Monkey Around

By Alexis Reed — March 19, 2008 2 min read
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Over the past decade, researchers and policymakers have raised concerns about reduced time for recess in schools. Do kids have time to be kids today? The big fear is that instructional time is edging out playtime—much to the detriment of children’s health. Play is believed to be an important factor in social and cognitive development, and it can be a good form of exercise for children. Current trends, such as increased rates of childhood obesity and greater expectations for academic performance as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act, have led many to speak out about school recess and physical education policies.

Mandatory Minimums

Some states have enacted policies to ensure children have time for recess during the school day. South Carolina, a state that has struggled with high childhood obesity rates, passed a law in 2005 that requires elementary school students to have a weekly minimum of 150 minutes of physical activity through recess or gym class. Last month, additional legislation was introduced to increase recess time from 12 to 20 minutes per day.

Research on Recess

Although some states are trying to ensure minimum time for recess, new evidence suggests that recess time has decreased since NCLB went into effect. A recently released study by the Center on Education Policy found that time allotted for recess decreased 28 percent under NCLB. Based on a nationally representative sample of 349 school districts, researchers found that an average of 184 minutes per week was scheduled for recess in 2001-2002, but only 144 minutes in 2006-2007. Instructional time for reading and math, however, both increased during this period.

What People Are Saying

David Thomas, a state senator and sponsor of the bill to increase recess time in South Carolina elementary schools, reflects on recess:

I can't imagine going through fifth grade, fourth, or third, and being denied recess time, I sort of lived for that as I recall.

Kenneth Sauer, a middle school principal in Brockport, NY, began offering recess at his school this year. Recess is not common in junior high schools, but Sauer makes a strong case for it:

They [middle school students] need time to blow off steam... The noise levels are down, the cafeteria is cleaner after the students leave, and we have had fewer discipline problems in the cafeteria this year as compared to last year.

Vicky Schippers, a tutor and education writer, says recess is an essential break in a day filled with preparation for standardized tests:

Recess… is about freedom. Today, our kids’ lives are organized to the hilt. For that reason, what is most important about recess is that it is the only unstructured time in a long day for most children, who find themselves in classrooms where the No Child Left Behind Act requires a rigorous schedule of standardized-test preparation.

Joe Frost, a former professor of education at the University of Texas, who has spent 30 years researching children’s play, advocates traditional recess without undue structure:

Children need to engage in games such as this in order to develop social skills, to learn to handle themselves, to avoid obesity, and to get the activities they need, and these are traditional games, going on for centuries.

The Harvard Crimson editorial staff agrees with Frost:

As the only unstructured time during the school day when kids interact wholly with each other without supervision (possibly excluding lunch), recess is an essential part of growing up. Only through lost games, hurt feelings and skinned knees can children build the social skills and develop the emotional maturity that they will need as adults.

On the other hand, physician Jan McBarron says that recess alone does not offer enough physical activity for children for a healthy lifestyle:

With a good physical education class you can teach children about what a healthy lifestyle should be, teach them how to care for their bodies now and in the future. There are certain skills and exercises they can't learn just by play.

Fitness expert and celebrity Richard Simmons wants physical education added to NCLB legislation:

I think we all have to join hands together and say, ‘Hey, put physical education in a fun way in the schools and the test scores will go up!’ Why not even try it? Give it a year, and I promise you the test scores will go up.

What do you think?

Is recess important? How much time do children need? What policies should be in place for recess and physical education? Where does fitness fit in?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Echo Chamber blog.