For many of us, an important part of our memories of elementary school is recess. It was the time that we could get up out of desks, go outside and play with our friends. Sometimes a teacher may have provided equipment, for example, kickballs, jump ropes or bats and balls. Other times we had nothing but our imaginations. It was the one time during the school day that we were free from the structure and demands of the curriculum and free, within a few rules related to safety, to do what we wanted to do.
That was then. Today, in many parts of the country, time for recess in elementary schools has been reduced and even in some cases eliminated. There are some schools where children do not get this unstructured break at all. There are a number of reasons why the reduction of recess time has been occurring. One reason is that recess can be messy. Children can get rowdy, physical disputes can occur, bullying takes place and accidents can happen. Some schools choose to deal with these problems by simply eliminating the time for recess. A second reason why unstructured time outside for children has been eliminated is that unfortunately some schools do not have a safe place for children to have recess. These schools are in neighborhoods which are dangerous and/or there is no appropriate physical space outside of the school for children’s play.
The third reason why recess time has been reduced or eliminated has to do with the increased emphasis on academics and testing. Some school administrators have decided that the 15, 20, or 30 minutes that used to be devoted to recess are better spent on instruction and preparation for the standardized tests that children are required to pass. In this case, the belief is that 15 more minutes of structured time at their desks is more valuable for the children than the unstructured playtime outside.
The fact is that children need recess. They need the break and they need the fresh air. Children need recess because it is the time that friendships are built and nurtured; a time when children learn how to navigate the social world. Yes, conflicts do occur when groups of children are left to their own devices but isn’t it true that there are always conflicts in social groups, whether those groups are on the playground, in the workplace or in the family home? Children need practice to get better at skills like computation, reading, playing the piano and dribbling a soccer ball and they need practice to get better at negotiation, understanding other people’s ideas and feelings and cooperation. These skills are practiced during recess and with the guidance of helpful adults, the practice of these skills can occur in a positive atmosphere.
In addition to the development of social skills, time for recess can contribute positively to children’s academic learning as well. Children have energy that needs to be released and as many of us know, some children have quite a bit of pent-up energy. Children’s ability to pay attention and stay focused on the academics of the classroom is enhanced if they are given the opportunity to get up and move around at periods during the day. Those of us who have worked at desks in offices know the feeling; we can’t concentrate anymore on the task in front of us so we find some excuse to stand up and walk around. Perhaps we go and get a cup of coffee, talking with a co-worker in the hall. Maybe we walk down the hallway to ask a question of the secretary even though we could have made a phone call or sent an email. We knew that we needed a break and a change of scenery. It is our version of recess.
Children need recess. Ideally, there should be at least two breaks a day of at least 15 minutes in length. Recess should be viewed as a child’s right and not as a privilege, and we should insist that our schools honor that right.
T.J. Corcoran, JD, MEd, is the founder of The Corcoran School