Recess is Absent in Some Schools but May Be Making a Comeback

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Our children spend a lot of time on standardized tests at school.  Now there’s one more thing they could be adding to their elementary school schedules.   The Centers for Disease Control has released a report urging schools to provide more… recess.  

Yes, recess is beginning to see a resurgence in popularity.  

It was probably your favorite time of the day in grade school.  But with increased pressure the last decade to expand academics and take more tests, school districts have reduced or even eliminated recess.   But Principal Kim Summers at Akron’s Betty Jane school did the opposite and expanded recess from 15 to 20 minutes a day.

“At first impulse, with everything that’s coming at the schools and when we schedule things we think, ‘oh we need to cut back on the recess time so we can do more of our academic time,’” says Summers.  “But in reality that becomes a detriment because they need the free time to do better academically.  That’s what we see and that’s the feedback we get from teachers as well.”

And the Wellness Director at Cleveland city schools Desiree Powell agrees that increased testing makes recess even more important for kids.

Desiree Powell, Director of Academic Electives & Wellness, CMSD.  

“Because you can only take in so much,” says Powell.  “And if you don’t have an outlet, you don’t even have room to take in anything else.   They need an outlet, and it stimulates their mind to learn more.”

Ohio does not require any recess and the CDC says only 8 states do.  The U.S. Department of Education has found white kids are more likely to have recess than minority kids.  And poor kids are least likely to get it.

Westlake pediatrician Andrew Garner has done research on recess and says it offers not just physical but cognitive benefits.

Westlake pediatrician Dr. Andrew Garner

 “If we take a break, use a different part of our brain and come back were actually going to do better,” says Garner.  “And so that’s the thing, recess is like a reboot.  It allows the children to re-energize and then they can take more information in.  In fact, kids will retain more information if they have those breaks as opposed to just keep plowing through.”   

Garner says studies show recess results in better test scores and better classroom behavior.

Betty Jane 5th graders Kaysie Anderson and Jayson Hughes have their own findings.

5th graders Jayson Hughes and Kaysie Anderson

“I feel like I’m energized and like I’m ready to learn,” says Anderson.

“During the day, you’re here for a couple hours and you’re just doing math and social studies and all this different stuff.  It’s nice to just get outside and set your mind on something different,” says Hughes. 

Educators outside America tend to agree.  Schools in Finland, Turkey, and Japan are taking 10 to 15 minute recess breaks after every class.

Professor of Child Development Karl Wheatley at Cleveland State University says kids in Finland score high on international tests and experience far less anxiety.

“Finns manage to come out on top of the world over and over again even though they start formal schooling at age 7,” says Wheatley.  “They have a much healthier balance, I would argue, of play and work.  They emphasize play a great deal within the school curriculum.  They emphasize physical activity a great deal.” 

Karl F. Wheatley
Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education, Cleveland State University 

The tide may be turning in America.  In just the past year, parents and teachers have demanded more recess in the states of Washington, Rhode Island, Texas, and Florida.

One reason is recess lowers stress which opens up students’ brains to learning says Doctor Garner.  And it also teaches them to socialize.

“We know now that social/emotional skills – the ability to understand your own emotion, how it impacts your behavior, how you interact with other kids – those are also skills that can be learned,” says Garner. “And that’s one of the big benefits of recess, the opportunity to reinforce those skills that you’re learning.”   

Some educators debate whether structured recess or free play is better.   Professor Wheatley argues it’s the unstructured nature of recess that gives it its potency.

“Recess is a banquet table of healthy whole foods of human development: open-ended discussion, exploration, kids engaged in physical activity,” says Wheatley.

He adds that recess is one of the few opportunities in school when kids get a chance to speak.

The Dean of Students at Akron’s Betty Jane elementary school, Daniel Casalinuovo, says students need to have a chance to be a child.

“Go focus on those other skills they don’t recognize as very, very important skills but those social skills,” says Casalinuovo.  “Being out in the elements working with other kids, and then to come back in, they’re sort of re-energized.” 

Learning to socialize is considered a benefit of recess.

Students at Betty Jane start each day with five minutes of aerobics.  Principal Kim Summers says they look forward to it, it puts them in the right mood to learn, and it sends a subtle message.

Dean of Students Daniel Casalinuovo and Principal Kim Summers at Akron's Betty Jane CLC

 “There has to be this sense of ‘the adults around me care about me.’  When we are doing Fit 5 in the morning and we have Walking Club and we’re showing them we want them to be healthy and we want them to be happy and healthy.   We extended their recess.  I think that’s all part of making them feel that they’re valued,” says Summers. 

The CDC report calls that “school connectedness” and says it creates a more positive school atmosphere. 

Experts say recess should be held before lunch so that children will relax and eat afterwards.  They also suggest that it should not take the place of physical education and not be witheld as punishment. 




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