Why Recess Matters

You probably remember your recess pretty well growing up.  It was that part of the morning and afternoon that you got to go outside for 20 minutes, get some fresh air, run around, before heading back to the classroom.  As a kid, it was awesome.  It was that break mid-way through morning or afternoon that made the time sitting at a desk actually bearable.

And it’s endangered.

Depending on where you live and where your children go to school, recess is a far cry from what it once was.  Many parents here in Canada believe that recess is something that is being cut in the USA, but that our children here are getting the much-needed outside time.  They are wrong.  In BC in 2014, 12 school districts (not schools, entire districts) cut recess citing that it was inconvenient to school principals and management who had to monitor the 15 minutes outside.

Even those schools that have recess have turned it into something that only pales in comparison to what we had a generation ago growing up.  In St. Catherine’s, ON, one elementary school banned the use of balls during recess after a child was hit on the head during recess.  In Langley, BC, one elementary school has banned touch during recess for Kindergarten children.  That’s right – you can go outside, but no tag, no holding hands, no hugging, no climbing too close, no touch at all.  Furthermore, lest you accidentally help your friend up who falls, there is a “zero-tolerance policy” with kids who violate the rule missing future playtime or risking trips to the office.

Why should we care?  What is it about recess that really matters?

For starters, it’s biologically unnatural for children to be inside sitting at a desk all day.  Children need to move and move regularly.  In the United States, the situation has gotten so bad that the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement condemning the removal of recess both for punitive or academic reasons.  They argue the research shows us that recess is essential for children to “rest, play, imagine, think, move, and socialize” (AAP, 2013).

As stated by the AAP, cognitive benefits include improved concentration, attention, and productivity in the classroom (all of which enhance cognitive performance more generally).  Children also gain valuable social benefits via the peer interactions that help them build social skills and that don’t often occur naturally in a classroom setting.  Play is where children learn skills such as cooperation, negotiation, and problem solving, and play is almost absent from the classroom these days, leaving the development of these skills solely to the realm of the playground.  Finally, from a physical perspective, recess helps children achieve the minimum 60 minutes a day of physical activity needed for their health (especially when they are sedentary for the rest of their time at school).

Interestingly, other countries already seem to know the value of recess.  In Japan, an academically-rigorous country, children receive 10-15 minute breaks every hour as they have realized the value in that break for children’s attention span and behaviour.  In Finland, children also get a 15 minute break every hour (so 45 minutes of learning followed by a 15 minute break) and have since the 1960s as teachers have seen the change in student behaviour when they come in from their break.  Importantly, where recess happens is less important than the fact that a child-led break occurs.  It can happen inside so long as it isn’t a structured break.

This change in focus and attention highlights the real flaw in any system that tries to reduce recess.  If the reason is academic, it backfires as children simply can’t pay the appropriate attention needed to fully understand the amount of information coming at them.  If the reason is punitive, it also fails as the child who is disruptive in the classroom is likely so from needing a break.  Even in schools where recess exists, it’s once in the morning (often a 2.5 to 3 hour stretch) and once in the afternoon (same stretch); already children’s capacity to focus and pay attention is being stretched beyond what the brain can biologically handle.

It’s time this changes.  It’s time teachers and parents alike fight for the rights of children to have regular breaks.  Not just for their physical well-being, but their social, emotional, and cognitive well-being too.  I also have to imagine it would be a lot easier on teachers if they had a class filled with kids who paid attention, even if they did have to work their subjects into shorter time frames.

Long live recess.

By Tracy Cassels

May 25, 2015