School & District Management

Recess Time Declining in Seattle Schools, Local News Outlet Finds

By Samantha Stainburn — May 21, 2014 2 min read
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The average amount of time Seattle students are getting for recess has declined over the past few years, an investigation by KUOW Puget Sound Public Radio has found. The reporters also observed that the schools with less time set aside for recess have more low-income students and students of color.

The radio station began tracking recess in Seattle schools four years ago. At that time, only one public school in Seattle reported having 20 minutes or less time for scheduled unstructured play a day. Today, 11 schools in the area schedule 20 minutes or less for recess.

One principal KUOW interviewed said she got rid of scheduled grade-level recesses because too many fights were beginning on the playground.

“When I started to investigate where some of the problems were arising, I did some research and recognized that a lot of the issues with behavior, starting there, happened at recess,” Vicki Sacco, principal of West Seattle Elementary School, told KUOW. “Kids get involved in a game, somebody hits somebody too hard with a ball, they get angry.”

Now, each West Seattle Elementary teacher takes their students out for recess when they want and for as long as they want, typically 15 to 20 minutes a day for 3rd through 5th graders. “It really minimizes the behaviors, kids seem happier, and I just think it’s better for the instructional day,” Sacco said of the new system.

Recess advocates would argue that time for recess, and more of it, needs to be set aside in the school day. Some early-childhood experts argue that the most imaginative, high-quality level play emerges after 30 minutes.

Students “might take 20 minutes to just explore the materials,” which could be a wooden fort, a sandbox, or even leaves, Myae Han, the president of the Rochester, N.Y.-based Association for the Study of Play and an assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Delaware, told Education Week in an interview earlier this year. “If you shorten play time, you actually hurt their ideas.”

Schools in Finland, which many look to as a model for high-quality education, typically give their 1st graders 1.5 hours a day for unstructured outdoor play.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has pushed back against the decline in recess time, releasing a policy statement in 2012 urging schools to protect recess in the schedule since “only recess (particularly unstructured recess) provides the creative, social, and emotional benefits of play.”

The organization also recommended that “the frequency and duration of breaks should be sufficient to allow the student to mentally decompress.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.