Letting Recess Slide: A Decline in Free Time
Ask any kid what their favorite school subject is and you are likely to get one of two answers, lunch or recess. Lunch is a mandatory part of the school day, but recess time has been shrinking noticeably over the last few years. What was once considered to be an integral part of a child’s school day is now a luxury that can be easily taken away.
Local teacher Hana Thomas shares that at her school, “Teachers are allowed to take away recess as a consequence for negative behaviors. Most of us try not to, because we all know how important fresh air and physical activity is, but there are still some who choose to take recess away. Have I taken away recess before? Yes. However, it is something that I do only as a last resort and only take a few minutes, never the whole recess.”
Why is Recess Getting the Ax?
In short, recess is not protected time. The U.S. Department of Education website states that Louisiana children must receive 180 days of instruction with 330 minutes per day dedicated to instruction, that’s 5.5 hours a day. Typical school days are about seven hours long, which leaves about an hour and a half for everything not instructional, such as arrival and dismissal, lunch, transitions, planning periods for teachers, and recess. Louisiana law requires children to have 30 minutes per day of “moderate to vigorous physical activity” in school to “develop good health, physical fitness, and improve motor coordination and physical skills.” Instead of dedicating this time to recess, many schools choose to count physical education time to fulfill this requirement, but even then, some students only have P.E. a couple of days a week.
Local pediatrician Dr. Mandy Grier shares, “Children six years and older should have at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day. Active play is the best exercise for younger children, making recess an important opportunity. The 60 minutes of time does not need to be done all at once.”
Due to the increased pressure on students to perform, for schools to increase performance scores, and for teachers to receive high ratings on their students’ test scores, it is no wonder that schools are chipping away at unstructured time.
Former school principal Teryn Bryant moved to Louisiana three years ago to help struggling schools in Baton Rouge. She was immediately shaken by the shift in the way recess time is valued, “When I moved here, I was shocked that the organization I worked for insisted on removing recess, including any sports activities, from the traditional school program that students were accustomed to. At the time, it was explained to me that students had to catch up on academics and that we needed to find additional instructional minutes.” Her school chose required dance classes as the replacement for recess. “While many of the students enjoyed the structured dance classes, as a school leader, I struggled with the potential harm to child development these classes might have on the autonomy of young children learning to socialize on their own in a traditional recess setting,” Bryant says.
East Baton Rouge elementary physical education teacher Grace Ford reported that her school took away one of the students’ two 10-minute recesses. That 10 minutes was added to ancillary class, exchanging free play for structured time. Now her students have only one 10-minute break for recess per day.
“I believe there are drawbacks to reducing recess time. Recess is a time for creative play and expending energy. It encourages children to engage in activities that will develop their physical, social, emotional, and even cognitive skills in an unstructured environment,” she explains.
What Are the Benefits of Recess?
According to mental health counselor, Tara Dixon, MA PLPC, “Unstructured play is essential to brain development. Children are born with an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex in their brain. This is the part of the brain in charge of decision making, impulse control, complex planning, and pieces of personality.”
Researchers have found that unstructured play is essential to building new pathways in the brain. On the recess playground, some students may choose hide and seek while others may choose to build in the sand box or play a game of basketball. The point is, the child gets to decide.
Dixon adds, “Recess time allows students to explore the questions they must answer to play successfully: ‘What is my goal? What are the rules of this play? How do I work with my peer to reach this goal? How do I work with others who don’t see my vision?’ This unstructured time also allows children to navigate problem solving and handle the anxiety of navigating complex social questions. Allowing them to do so alone is essential for both brain and character development. Many adults find it difficult to fully understand what unstructured play means. No teachers, no suggestions, no rulebook.”
In addition to brain and character development, recess allows for an emotional, mental, and energetic release that children crave. Multiple studies have shown that physically active children perform better academically, and with better focus and concentration in the classroom. “Recess also helps with social development. It promotes children making new friends and helps them learn to handle real life situations on the playground,” adds Dr. Grier. “Recess allows children independence to choose their enjoyment instead of having someone else decide for them. It is this active play time that rejuvenates children and gets students ready to learn.”
What Can We Do?
One in three children in the U.S. is considered to have a BMI that makes them overweight or obese. This has been on the rise in recent years. Despite mass education initiatives such as the “Let’s Move” project of our former First Lady, there are still sections of the population where the ability to affect this change is difficult and costly. Recess is one solution that doesn’t cost a thing. Protecting our children’s recess just takes some reshuffling of schedules and in the end makes academic time more effective.
Fortunately, some schools are beginning to catch on and save recess time. Recess time is decided on a school per school basis. Veteran elementary school teacher, Mary Simon, happily shares, “My school values recess time. We have 30 minutes per day. When the weather is nice, we stay every minute we can. When we go back in, the students are ready to learn. We’ve had this time before lunch some years and after lunch other years. The timing doesn’t seem to matter as much as just having the experience of recess for the students.” ■