A Plea to Reclaim Recess

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Imagine the sound of 25 students counting as they complete laps around the school playground. The students are spending the majority of their already skimpy recess time being punished for talking in the classroom. Two hours before, they had to sit through their lunch without talking because the whole class didn’t finish work on time. After they complete the laps, they can spend the remaining 4 minutes playing. That’s enough time, right?

Recess has been defined as “a break period, typically outdoors, for children” (Pellegrini and Smith 1993). When compared to the rest of the school day, recess should be a time when kids have freedom to choose what to do without overbearing instruction. It should constitute a break from the day’s regular routine. Scientists, social behaviorists, and psychologists refer to this as “unstructured play”. With parents wanting (or needing) their children involved in everything from dance lessons to year-round sports, this unstructured play time is already limited at home. Now it seems as if school recess is taking a hit.

There are several reasons used as an excuse to cut, or limit, school recess time in general. Liability could be an issue if a student gets hurt. However, it seems like schools needing more “instructional” time is most commonly used. Unstructured recess time is vanishing. In 2009, a report by the Alliance for Childhood Fund stated that kindergartens in NYC and Los Angeles allowed children less than 30 minutes per day of “choice” time, and this included lunch. When students are also being punished with a “silent” lunch, how much time does this really leave for non-instructional time?

The North Carolina State Board of Education Policy HSP-S-000, section 3-b states, “a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity shall be provided by schools for all K-8 students daily.” However, it follows up by stating that this “30 minutes” can be “achieved through a regular physical education class and/or through activities such as recess, dance, classroom energizers, or other curriculum-based physical activity programs.” Obviously, our state’s educational leaders don’t understand the meaning of free play, especially the importance of it being unstructured and curriculum-free. The policy also states in section 3-a that “structured/unstructured recess and other physical activity shall not be taken away as a form of punishment.” Schools can easily weasel around this by not actually taking the time away, but instead making students do things like walk laps around a playground. As a whole, the state policy is disappointing because of the many advantages to free, unstructured play.

The fact that free play is critical in the development of children is well documented. It helps children become socially adept as they play games and solve problems with their friends, cope with stress, and build important cognitive skills like problem-solving. Pellegrini and Davis found that elementary school children become more inattentive when free play is cut short (1993). Through a meta-analysis of over 200 studies, Etnier et al. showed that physical activity even supports learning. Unstructured play also plays a role in developing naturalistic intelligence, or “nature smarts”. For us in the business of conservation and engaging/recruiting science students, this is huge.

The creative aspect is key here because children need to be allowed to use their imaginations with their playmates instead of following a predetermined set of rules at recess (like walking laps). Of course, many parents believe they are doing what is best for their children when they sign them up for travel baseball (with 5 days of practice per week and games all weekend). Likewise, many teachers feel they are justified when they swap play for “valuable” instructional punishment. In his highly acclaimed book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey describes habit #3 as “Put First Things First”. Covey argues that throughout the day we must prioritize based on what is most important, not what is most urgent. Since elementary students now have tremendous academic demands placed on them, we would all do well to take Covey’s advice to prioritize and let kids be kids.

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