The mystery of the disappearing recess, is not an uncommon topic of discussion in elementary education. The majority of adults remember a morning recess, a lunch recess, and an afternoon recess. I think most Americans would hazard a guess and say that there is probably less time devoted to recess today than in years gone by.
But here are some stark numbers to put today’s reality into perspective.
According to a statistic cited in our read along book,What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children’s Lives (affiliate link),by Rae Pica, 40% of US elementary schools have removed recess from the day’s schedule completely.
That number climbs even higher when you take a regional or local view. For example, studies done a few years ago showed that in Chicago Public Schools, only 40% of the schools have kept recess.
The topic of recess data presents an thorny equity issue. Research suggests students are less likely to receive recess if they live in urban areas, live in poverty, struggle academically, or are Black. Given what we know about the benefits of recess and play in general, this is an unfortunate compounding of risk factors. (For more on play as an equity issue, read this thought-provoking piece.)
As many as two thirds of administrators report withholding recess as a punishment for a lack of focus or disruptive behavior, in spite of data that suggests that recess helps students to focus and is connected with a decrease in behavior problems.
As Dr. Olga Jarrett, a leading researcher in the recess arena, puts it, “It’s the kids who have trouble concentrating that need recess more than anybody else – and they are the ones least likely to get it.” (source)
Only 11% of states actually require public schools to provide regularly scheduled recess periods, leaving the decision to districts, schools, or individual teachers. And while generally, I’m a fan of letting schools and teachers make decisions about their classrooms, the catch is this: The schools and teachers are under unprecedented pressure to perform on high-stakes tests, which are tied to school resources, wages, and job security. (Essentially, it’s like Cinderella’s stepmother saying of course she can go to the ball. That is, once she finishes the litany of chores placed upon her.) Given those circumstances, many are afraid to gamble on anything that takes away from instruction time.
But here’s the irony. According to a study done by Dr. Olga Jarrett, a fifteen minute recess yields 20 minutes of quality focus time because it reduces fidgeting and increases the child’s ability to stay on task.
As neurologist Dr. Judy Willis pointed out in this perennial favorite:
” The amygdala is part of limbic system in the temporal lobe. It was first believed to function as a brain center for responding primarily to anxiety and fear. Indeed, when the amygdala senses threat, it becomes over-activated. In students, these neuroimaging findings in the amygdala are seen with feelings of helplessness and anxiety. When the amygdala is in this state of stress-induced over-activation, new sensory information cannot pass through it to access the memory and association circuits.
(The affective filter) describes an emotional state of stress in students during which they are not responsive to learning and storing new information. What is now evident on brain scans during times of stress is objective physical evidence of this affective filter. With such evidence-based research, the affective filter theories cannot be disparaged as “feel-good education” or an “excuse to coddle students” — if students are stressed out, the information cannot get in. This is a matter of science.”(emphasis mine)
On the flip side, scans also show us that brains at play are awash with neurochemicals that encourage growth and learning. As Dr. Stu Brown writes, “Play is like fertilizer for brain growth. It’s crazy not to use it.” (affiliate source)
Designing a school day that is void of recess is at odds with recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, is ignorant of what we know from research is beneficial for children and for a positive learning environment, and disregards what we know about human development and what is needed for children to grow up physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy. In light of all of that, I can’t see how an argument can be made to support such a decision.
And yet it happens. Parents and educators need to stand up for kids on this one.
Rae does an amazing job in this section of the book of outlining why kids need recess and sharing valuable resources parents and teachers can access to prepare themselves to petition for the preservation or return of recess time.
But amid all the data, all the research, and all the numbers, reason #1 is because they are human beings.
As humans, our children need down time, they need fresh air, they need to move, they need to play, they need to be social, they need to be in charge even for one small window of the day. They are whole children. Not disembodied minds.
Our policies need to reflect that understanding.
What is recess like where you are? Share your observations in the comments. And as always, share your questions for the author, Rae Pica. She’ll be answering YOUR questions in the last post in the series!