By Angela Barton
December 20, 2018
For most states, recess isn’t even a requirement.
On one particularly beautiful, sunny day in Las Vegas, I let my kindergarten students run around, giggle, and play imaginative games for (gasp!) 20 whole minutes. You know how I felt? Guilty. Really, really guilty.
With so much emphasis put on testing these days, it’s next to impossible for teachers to fit in all their curriculum requirements in a single day. As a result, things like free play, hands-on learning, and, yes, recess for kids get cut.
This is happening all over the country. In fact, most states don’t even have standards or minimums in place to guarantee recess time. It shows, too. As more and more school districts cut recess, teachers are seeing how counterproductive that decision is. We see our kids fidgeting. We notice when they start tuning us out. And we know it’s not helping test scores.
Here are 11 reasons we need to fight for more recess for kids.
Teacher friends often tell me that their admin feels that recess is a waste of learning time. Or they have too much curriculum to cover, so it’s the first thing to go. This doesn’t hold up when looking at the research, though.
In fact, more recess can actually improve test scores!
A study based on over two million school tests concluded that test scores improved significantly when the exams were taken immediately after recess. Also, The LiiNK study mimicked practices in Finland by giving kids four 15-minute recesses a day.
Results showed off-task behaviors decreased by 25 percent, focus improved by 30 percent, and reading and math scores went up, too.
This makes a heck of a lot of sense to me. I see how much my students benefit from a brain break or moving around a bit. Recess needs to be part of the school day. It’s true for me, too. I know I can focus on grading or lesson plans more effectively after clearing my head with a nice brisk walk around the block.
Recess develops social-emotional skills.
Elementary-school playtime provides students with some of their first opportunities to learn and practice social skills, such as sharing, conversational give and take, and just plain old getting along with others. Students discuss and find solutions to problems. They learn how to control their emotions. They have eye-to-eye interactions without the temptation of a digital device.
The American Academy of Pediatrics tells us that vitamin D, which we all can get naturally from sunlight, is really important.
In addition, academic learning, productivity, stress reduction, heart health, and a lowered risk of diabetes are all linked to sun exposure.
Kids need vitamin D just as much as adults, and they can get some during recess. Even in winter—especially in winter—recess is important.
Lousy weather shouldn’t affect recess unless it’s really bad out. The kids won’t care. They just need to bundle up, take in the fresh air, and experience the outdoors. After all, it’s good for their health. (It’s good for a teacher’s health, too!)
Classroom behavior is better with more recess.
We don’t need research to tell us that kids need to move around during the day. Teachers know their students. When students are working too long, we see the signs. The volume in the room goes up. Kids start falling out of their chairs. They start tossing crayons and pencils for no reason. They do the Fortnite dances.
We just know.
After recess, students settle down and are calmer. They remember to raise their hands and not blurt out the answers. They use their inside voices. They sit criss-cross applesauce. When students miss out on recess or it gets cut short, teachers notice.
Recess reduces stress and anxiety.
Stress and anxiety among kids are on the rise. We know from the National Survey of Children’s Health that anxiety alone has increased by 20 percent. One researcher, Dr. Peter Gray, studied the tie to recess and mental health among kids, and the results were clear. Recess matters.
Grey writes, “Free play and exploration are, historically, the means by which children learn to solve their own problems, control their own lives, develop their own interests, and become competent in pursuit of their own interests.”
It might seem like a stretch to tie recess and children’s mental health together, but it’s not. Recess is a very real and positive benefit.
Parents are happier.
Imagine picking up your kids after they have been stuck inside four walls for seven hours. Not a pretty picture, right? Parents are starting to demand more recess for their kids, and it’s no wonder why. In fact, most states don’t even have policies to mandate recess. Arizona is one of only seven states that do, and this is in large part because of parents, like Christine Davis, who fought for this legislation.
Arizona school districts and charter schools now have to provide at least two recess periods for students in grades K–3, and the law will expand to fifth grade in 2019.
This might seem like a small thing—of course this should be happening—but remember only a few states even have rules. So even if your school has good recess practices in place, it could go away at anytime because it’s not policy.
“Winning a recess law in Arizona was bittersweet,” said Davis when I spoke to her about her efforts. “The real win will be advocacy that changes the hearts of key administrators who remain recess resistant.”
Well said, Christine. This teacher is with you.
“I got two Chihuahuas over here that just escaped,” screamed one of my kindergarteners as one student crawled around on all fours and another on her hind legs.
I can’t help but smile and eavesdrop when I see my students making up games on the playground. They are developing their creativity, solving problems, and experiencing free play at its best.
Nothing can compare to this. Yes, physical education classes are important, but they don’t have the same type of unstructured play that recess does. While outside, students are free to let their imaginations run wild, and teachers see the creative results and benefits every single day.
When you give students recess, it helps school morale.
Teacher morale is at an all-time low across the US. Teachers are frustrated and underpaid, and many are thinking of leaving the profession. We need to repair and build some relationships, and one of the ways to do this is by trusting your teachers by trusting them when they say their students need things like recess.
I have a friend, Shannon, who now works with me as a first grade teacher. Last year, her school didn’t allow recess at all. In fact, she took flashcards with her to review with students during classroom bathroom breaks—it was required.
“We were to maximize learning minutes at all times,” Shannon says. “The problem was we had more behavior problems and less focus. There was a mass exodus of teachers from the school. Our climate was destroyed.”
Without a doubt, morale can be boosted at schools all over the country. Teachers, parents, and students all know that recess is a good thing. Schools need to deliver on it. It would make everyone happier overall.
In the past five years of my teaching, I have seen the results of students spending more time inside while they are at home and at school. In a lot of cases, time on iPads and tablets are replacing time riding bikes, playing hide-and-go-seek, and just exploring outside.
I see the results in my kindergarten students. They often lack strong gross and fine motor skills, like being able to cut in a straight line, grasp a pencil, or catch a ball. If we could replace some of this screen-swiping time with recess, think of what might happen.
Blacktop games like hopscotch, drawing with chalk, and foursquare are all cheap and easy ways to practice gross and fine motor skills.
All we need now is the recess minutes.
Recess encourages kids to be physically fit.
Childhood obesity rates have doubled since the 1970s. Sedentary lifestyles, driven by a digital world, have led to overall poorer fitness.
Physically fitness and academic success are linked. A study by the Journal of Pediatrics found that kids who were more physically active tended to learn vocabulary more quickly and perform better on tests.
Recess provides the all-important time for enjoyable physical activity. It’s important for kids to develop a positive association between fun and exercise early on. This can play a big part in developing good lifelong habits.
Recess exposes kids to the power of nature.
In the age of digital everything and helicopter and lawnmower parents, kids are inside more often. They aren’t out exploring in the woods by themselves or spending hours outside with the neighbor kids.
Young children love tiny insects, flowers, trees, and dirt. My students love when the ladybugs are out, so they can let the little critters crawl up their arms. They even love the spiders; although, they mostly admire them from a distance. Exploring the natural world is such an important piece of childhood, and kids can explore so many nature wonders during recess time.
So let’s all insist on more recess time.
The modern problems of today do not always require modern solutions. Recess and play have been around forever, and the research could not be any clearer.
If you’re a teacher at a school with little or limited recess, ask for more time. Involve your PTA, or go to school board meetings and show them the facts. If you’re a teacher looking for your first job or a new job, ask the prospective school about their recess policies before you accept the position.
We as teachers should not be afraid to advocate for what we believe. We are all in this for the benefit of our children, and the facts speak for themselves. We need more recess minutes, not fewer. Now let’s go and get it.