Student Well-Being Opinion

On the Elimination of Recess

By Katherine Schultz — June 10, 1998 4 min read
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If we want to allow students to find their own tasks or to construct their own meanings, then we need to give them unstructured time to invent and discover.

Seventy years ago, in The Aims of Education, Alfred North Whitehead described three phases of education: romance, precision, and generalization. Characterizing romance as a passion for inquiry and exploration that leads to more exact studies, he argued persuasively that the quest for precision is futile if it does not grow out of the romance of learning. As educators and policymakers today look for ways to improve the performance of our public education system, as measured in test scores, they are ignoring Whitehead’s wisdom. In taking steps to eliminate recess (as reported on the front page of The New York Times, April 7, 1998), schools are not just reducing “play time,” they are actually moving in a direction that will further diminish the quality of education and ultimately the quality of life that we offer our children.

Across the country, educators are at a loss about how to improve students’ performance in school. The elimination of recess is one of a string of solutions policymakers have arrived at to give students more time in “formal” learning. According to this view, time spent outside the classroom--recess, lunch, or unstructured class time--is time “wasted.” The operating theory is that more time at desks equals higher test scores.

But what about nurturing the imagination? For true learning to take place, children must first learn to dream, to imagine, and to inquire. Recess, and other times for play and reflection, allow children to deepen their understanding of what they have learned at their desks and to develop social relationships that are a critical aspect of their schooling. Recess gives students a chance to discover their interests and passions, to develop ingenuity and inventiveness.

Traditional educational researchers measure teaching by counting the number of minutes students spend on a task. An alternative conception of learning is to argue, as the University of Pennsylvania’s Frederick Erickson has, that children are always on task 100 percent of the time; the question is whose task are they on? If we want to allow students to find their own tasks or to construct their own meanings, then we need to give them unstructured time to invent and discover, to explore and imagine alone and with others.

Recess, lunch, and other less structured activities are also times when the social work of schooling takes place. At these unstructured times of the day, children form relationships with each other, participate as members of a community, assert their views and even disagree and argue. The nuances of these relationships constitute the context that supports students’ learning. We now understand that individuals don’t learn in isolation; we learn as members of communities in relation to each other. Those relationships are key to the construction of knowledge. That is what recess accomplishes where it continues to exist.

When I taught 1st grade in the early 1980s, I noticed that the fantasy games children played during recess were scripted by the television shows they watched in the evenings. Girls were acting out stories from “Care Bears,” boys from “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” While I recognized the importance of allowing them to play out these stories and even found myself watching the television shows to learn the various names and roles, I worried about the limitations of these tightly scripted scenes. I embarked on a study of storytelling with the children in the classroom. I took a storytelling class and brought my newly acquired abilities to my classroom, where we began to read, write, and tell elaborate, and sometimes simple, stories. The unit was a success, yet I might never have begun it had I neglected to take seriously the students’ play during recess.

More recently, together with my colleague James Davis, I’ve held conversations with students in a middle school about their experiences across racial lines in a school district that recently lifted its desegregation order. Students willingly, though sometimes painfully, talk about their understandings of “race” and racism in single-race groups and groups composed of students from a wide range of backgrounds. All agree that--although they’re sometimes difficult--these conversations are important. When we ask students whether these conversations take place in their classrooms, they reply, “Absolutely not.” The only time they talk about race in their classrooms is when the discussion is safely located in the past--in slavery. We ask them where these conversations happen now, and they reply that, when they do occur, the conversations take place in the hallways and lunchrooms and during the short recess time they are given. This sort of conversation is key to the kind of education we want to give our students to prepare them to participate in a democracy. Similarly, the ability to develop a rule-governed community, where the rules are set by group norms, is critical to participation in a democratic society.

I worry that by eliminating recess, schools are returning to the factory model of education, in which learning is viewed as a rote process and as work. When we eliminate recess from our schools, we are taking one more step in stripping education of romance. We are forgetting the intrinsic joy in learning. Perhaps if children played as they learned, we would have less need for recess. If we consistently allowed, even encouraged, students to struggle to solve problems, both individually and collectively, if we set up classrooms where students engaged in learning and explored their understandings in deep and meaningful ways, then we could skip recess.

Katherine Schultz is an assistant professor of literacy and teacher education in the graduate school of education of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 1998 edition of Education Week as On the Elimination of Recess


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