Student Well-Being

Survey Finds Majority of Elementary Schools Still Offer Recess Time

By Debra Viadero — May 23, 2006 4 min read

Despite widespread concerns that the daily recess period is going the way of the dinosaur, a federal survey issued last week suggests that the vast majority of elementary schools still offer unstructured playtime for students each day.

According to the study, released May 16 by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, 83 percent to 88 percent of elementary schools provide daily recess for children in 1st through 6th grades. The report, part of a series of fast-turnaround surveys that the department conducts on hot educational topics, is based on responses from a nationally representative group of 1,198 schools serving those grades.

“Calories In, Calories Out: Food and Exercise in Public Elementary Schools, 2005" is available from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The findings come at a time when parents’ groups and health advocates say they are worried that schools are giving recess short shrift in the drive to boost students’ scores on state tests. A recent survey by the Chicago-based National PTA, for instance, estimated that nearly 40 percent of elementary schools in the United States have eliminated or are considering eliminating recess time. (“National PTA Aims to Restore Time for Recess,” March 22, 2006.)

Charlene R. Burgeson, the executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, based in Reston, Va., said the federal survey may be giving an incomplete picture of what’s happening with children’s playtime in schools.

“From what we hear, there is a reduction going on in recess time, but it may be happening in completely different ways,” she said. “Schools may be shortening the time periods or taking recess time away from some students so they can get additional tutoring.”

The federal study has no historical data on the prevalence of recess.

More Curbs Coming?

The report, called “Calories In, Calories Out,” is the first by the Education Department to measure the opportunities that children have for snacking and exercising in schools. Mark Schneider, the commissioner of the NCES, said the survey was prompted by nationwide concern over the rate of obesity among 6- to 11-year-olds—a figure that has tripled over the past three decades.

Among its other findings, the study shows that:

• Seven percent of elementary schools offer no recess at all.

• Whether a student gets free playtime or not depends partly on socioeconomics. Schools in which three-quarters or more of children are poor get less time for recess than those in more affluent schools.

• Ninety-four percent of elementary schools offer snack foods for sale outside of the regular lunch—either in the lunch line, or through vending machines and snack bars. Rural schools and those in the Southeastern states are the most likely to have contracts with outside vendors to sell snack foods on campus.

Non-nutritious items are available at 52 percent of the elementary schools surveyed, according to Bernard Greene, the project director for the study. Healthy items such as salad or low-fat milk are the most prevalent a la carte items that schools sell, but 15 percent of the schools sold candy, and 38 percent offered high-fat cookies.

“The bottom line on all these snack-food contracts is that it is a revenue source for schools,” said Bob Mooneyham, the executive director of the National Rural Education Association, which is based at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. “And schools have actually begun to rely on it.”

Minutes Tallied

The federal survey was released the same month that the soft-drink industry, under threat of litigation, vowed to voluntarily curb selling sugary sodas and other high-calorie beverages in schools. (“Stricter School Soda Limits Offered,” May 10, 2006.)

Mr. Greene said the survey data suggest such restrictions will affect 34 percent of the nation’s schools.

Advocates last week said efforts are also under way to broker similar curbs on the sale of high-calorie and salty snack foods in schools.

As for the recess issue, the study estimates that students’ recess periods go from an average of 28 minutes a day in 1st grade to 24 minutes in 6th grade. In addition, 17 percent to 22 percent, depending on the grade, of schools provide physical education on a daily basis. Half or more of the schools surveyed offer such classes just one or two days a week.

Between recess and physical education classes, federal statisticians figured, students get a total of 208 to 222 minutes of physical activity per week on average. Both statisticians and health advocates noted that those averages fall short of the 60 minutes of daily exercise that the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends for elementary-school-age children.

“There is a disconnect between what we know is important and whether or not we’re providing it to students,” said Ms. Burgeson of the NASPE. Her group this month released the 2006 findings from its annual study of state physical education requirements. It found, for instance, that the number of states that do not require schools to provide physical education increased from two in 2001 to five this year.

A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 2006 edition of Education Week as Survey Finds Majority Of Elementary Schools Still Offer Recess Time

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