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What was the best part about elementary school when you were a kid? Probably, recess. So would it shock you to realize that recess for your own kids is endangered, maybe even extinct?

Twenty  minutes of recess each day is pretty much the minimum. In one major American city of 69 elementary schools, only one school, in 2010 offered its students less than 20 minutes of recess each day. Two years later, the number had grown to six schools. Now, in 2014, 11 elementary schools – more than one-sixth – offer students little or no recess at all. The number of schools affected by recess reduction in this district has doubled every  two years. Why?

It used to be that educators said they cut recess because they needed more minutes in the day to concentrate on academics. This is a lousy reason, of course, since no one can sit still and learn without a break. Think of your own need for a break in the middle of your work day! But now, not even academics is the excuse for cutting recess. A recent investigation in that major school district found that the reason why recess has been cut or reduced is because it’s too much trouble to have recess. Principals eliminate recess to eliminate the ordinary sorts of issues kids have when they play together.

In the district I’m talking about, recess at some schools is as much as an hour every day. Guess which schools get the most recess and which ones get the least? You probably already know the answer. Kids in more affluent neighborhoods – where parents know the value of recess and demand it – get the most free time. Kids in poorer neighborhoods – where parents are too busy with other issues to think about their children’s play – get the least.

Naturally, this adds to the problem rather than eliminating it, if the problem is student behavior or student achievement. Children with no opportunities to learn how to get along don’t learn how to get along better. Children with no opportunities to take a mental and physical break from their school studies pay attention less in school and learn less. Children in better neighborhoods have a more humane, child-centered school experience, do better in school, and stay in school longer. Children in less-privileged neighborhoods are handed a rigid, controlling school experience, do worse, and leave school as soon as they legally can.

What does this mean for you and your children? It means you must ask about recess.

  1. If you’re choosing a new school for your kids in the fall, ask how much free time kids get during the day. Remember that 20 minutes is the minimum (and we’re talking here 20 minutes all at once, not five minutes here and five minutes there. We’re also not including the time it takes to put on jackets and get outside and the time it takes to line back up to come in.) In the best schools, where children are most successful, they get much more outdoor time.
  2. Find out what happens at recess. Is recess really free time or is it all choreographed by teachers around organized games or “learning activities”? Once again, think of your own experience at work. Is your entire day scheduled – even your lunch – as a group activity? Do you have no time to even go to the bathroom on your own or take a walk during your break time? There are labor laws that regulate your own freedom during the day. Your kids deserve at least as much.
  3. If your children are already settled in a school, make sure they get as much recess as possible. If they don’t, or if recess is left up to teacher discretion and not required, make some noise. Your children’s health, happiness and school success depend on this.
  4. Finally, notice if recess is used at your child’s school as a hostage to good behavior. You probably remember being kept in at recess because you misbehaved or you remember the entire class being kept in because too many kids misbehaved. Recess is a right, not a bargaining chip. If your child’s teacher withholds recess because he cannot otherwise manage his students, there’s something wrong with the teacher, not with the kids.

Do you want your children to stay in school, do well in school, and be happy? Getting a couple breaks during the day, getting out in the sunshine, and running around with friends is what your kids need.

If they’re not getting that, stand up for them and make sure that they do.



© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Join Dr. Anderson in an online conference for teachers and parents. Find out more at Quality Conference for Early Childhood Leaders.