Want Brighter, Better Behaved Students? SAVE RECESS!

Readers — When my son was in fifth grade and annoying the teacher one way or another, his punishment was NO RECESS.

Do you think that made him more eager to pay attention, stop squirming and buckle down to work for the rest of the day?

That’s why I’m thrilled that no less an institution than the American Academy of Pediatrics has decided to rally for recess. According to this piece by Bonnie Rochman in Time Magazine:

Children need to have downtime between complex cognitive challenges,” says Dr. Robert Murray, a pediatrician and professor of human nutrition at Ohio State University who is a co-author of the statement. “They tend to be less able to process information the longer they are held to a task. It’s not enough to just switch from math to English. You actually have to take a break.”

The AAP committee that developed the statement began its research in 2007, expecting to discover that recess is important as a physical outlet for children. What they found, however, was that playtime’s benefits extend beyond the physical. [LENORE INTERRUPTING FOR A MOMENT TO SAY: DUH.]  “We came to the realization that it really affects social, emotional and cognitive development in a much deeper way than we’d expected,” she says. “It helps children practice conflict resolution if we allow them unstructured play, and it lets them come back to class more ready to learn and less fidgety.”

You’d think that any adult who has ever interacted with a child might have noticed this without a multi-year study. But no matter: Now that it is OFFICIAL and SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN, perhaps schools that consider recess expendable will realize it’s actually the opposite: Crucial.

And once all the experts get on board with THAT, maybe we can move on to the importance of play OUTSIDE of school, too. Like, you know, at the park, with other kids, while the adults are off working or making dinner. I know that still sounds nutters to most of the country at this point, but now that recess has pediatric legitimacy, maybe plain old playing at the park isn’t so far behind. – L.


Silly ol’ recess? Or motor-skill-enhanced emotional-educational advancement?

49 Responses to Want Brighter, Better Behaved Students? SAVE RECESS!

  1. A Dad January 4, 2013 at 12:29 pm #

    Notice that it said “unstructured play” in the article. That means let the kids play on their own.

    The teachers don’t need to organize the play at recess.

  2. Captain America January 4, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

    I’m in Illinois. We’re the only state in the union with mandatory PE in high school. It’s not a bad thing at all.

  3. Silver Fang January 4, 2013 at 1:48 pm #

    I know I didn’t do well in school unless I was allowed to play and work off my energy. I can tell you right now that all these ADHD, ODD and whatever else kids wouldn’t act out if they were allowed to play outside more often and for longer periods.

  4. Sheri January 4, 2013 at 1:52 pm #

    Oh this is my buggahboo…. I went round and round with the, apparently, logically challenged school administrators and teachers….trying to explain that a young wiggly boy needs time to run. Punishing said wiggly boy for wiggling and moving and being unfocused by not allowing him to run and play and jump and move is just going to make wiggly boy MORE wiggly and less focused. The solution proposed was that if we just medicate said wiggly boy, their problems would be solved (said wiggly boy is 13 now and definitely not ADHD). We suggested that lazy idiots should be medicated and pulled him from the school. – seriously, where DO they put their common sense?

  5. ShortWoman January 4, 2013 at 1:54 pm #

    If only this announcement didn’t come from an organization with a history of making recommendations parents can’t realistically follow. These are the same guys who recommend not putting small children in grocery carts because they might tip over.

  6. Warren January 4, 2013 at 1:59 pm #

    Oh my god, we’ll have school yards of Lord of the Flies. How did we become a society where we need doctors and studies to tell us this.

    The bell rang, we ran outside, played our asses off, and got in crap for not coming back inside the school fast enough, after the bell rang. And we did that no matter what the weather. I can never remember having indoor recess because of weather, or anything.

  7. Rispecialeducation January 4, 2013 at 2:14 pm #

    It’s not about more PE – it’s about pure free play
    Student initiated. The statement from the AAP clearly states
    It does not mean more PE

  8. David January 4, 2013 at 2:16 pm #

    @ShortWoman – that’s not entirely true, and it’s pretty strange that you’re dismissing something that makes a huge amount of common sense (recommending physical exercise and social interaction) based on your reading of a headline somewhere. The shopping cart recommendation you mention (keep kids out of carts) is third after public education and adequate adult supervision. The context is that in the study they found that over 25000 children had been injured in shopping cart accidents in the previous year (2005). Recommending solutions to things that hurt kids is the AAP’s job. And a lot of the injuries were stupid – kids in car seats that weren’t hooked onto the carts falling off the carts, etc.

  9. Lollipoplover January 4, 2013 at 2:24 pm #

    @ShortWoman- sadly, the recommendation of not putting small children in grocery carts is because many people interpret “small children” differently OR they don’t fasten them in and they climb out. And parents blame the cart…

    As for recess, it always was the best period of the day. It was what I went to school for each day- a time to play! My kids love it too and have it every day, thankfully. I love that they use extra recess periods as incentives at our school (after filling up their marble jar). They can vote for either a pajama day or an extra recess and they always pick recess.

    I wish we could bring recess back for adults…

  10. Laura January 4, 2013 at 2:30 pm #

    To Captian America,
    IL is NOT the only state that has mandatory PE in highschool! CA requires, “100% of all schools at all levels”. I just googled it, many states do, AR, CT and MD, are just a few others.

  11. Barb January 4, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

    @Captain America
    There are many states that require PE in high school. If you are interested here a list.


  12. John January 4, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

    In our small-town Ohio system, the kids at my kids’ school get more recess time than do kids at some other schools. Why? Our mandated state achievement tests scores are the highest in the district. The teachers feel safe allowing them time outside, whereas other teachers at the “tougher” schools are forced to do more drills instead, especially in the spring, when test time nears.

    While my kids benefit from this unfairness, they are not the ones who most need those activity breaks. (Don’t tell THEM that.) Yay for unstructured play time at recess!

  13. highwayman January 4, 2013 at 3:08 pm #

    For Recess being endorsed by the Pediatric Academy, thumbs Waaaayyyyy UP!!!! Every endorsement helps. Recess is a good thing –even into high school.

    Adults do have coffee breaks and lunch breaks at wotk ( a more sedate recess, sure, but recess nonetheless).

    As for Physical Education, if they can screen “macho jerk” from the various instructors hired for these classes, I may be more amenable to this requirement. Until that day arrives, may I suggest other “physical” classes:

    Wood shop
    Farming (if living in a city)
    Walking (long distance)
    Bicycling (long distance)

    the last two suggestions could engage their geographic and map-reading skills.

  14. Violet January 4, 2013 at 3:56 pm #

    PE and recess are not the same and children need both!!! We have known for years that free play and exercise help cognitive development but teachers still deny recess for misbehavior. Maybe if there is no recess, the teacher should take the kids home that night?

  15. mollie January 4, 2013 at 4:19 pm #

    I’m with Lenore: DUH.

  16. Jim Collins January 4, 2013 at 5:17 pm #

    The two boys (13 and 14) who live next to me catch their bus at 7:00 AM to be in class at 8:30, when their school is less than a 15 minute walk from their house. They are not allowed to walk (too many dangerous roads to cross is the reason given), nor are their parents allowed to drive them (too much traffic congestion at the school,this is police enforced). They sit in the cafeteria from 7:15 AM until 8:20 when they can go to their classrooms. They get 25 minutes for Lunch and then it is back to class. Classes are over at 3:30 PM, so they have to sit in the cafeteria until 5:15 and then they catch their bus home to arrive at 5:30
    . They then have between one and one and a half hours of homework. They can’t do their homework during their wait in the cafeteria because they don’t have their books. The school instituted a no backpack policy, so they have a set of books at home and books are available in each class. All they are allowed to carry is a couple notebooks and a planner that the school issues.

    They get Phys Ed one semester per year. That means that after changing clothes and roll call, 40 boys or girls get 20 minutes of activity before having to shower and change.

    No wonder kids are hyper! especially this time of year, when they leave for school in the dark and come home in the dark.

  17. Crystal January 4, 2013 at 5:26 pm #

    One more reason I am so grateful my parents had the ability to homeschool me. I had so much free time to dream and run and play and jump that I NEVER struggled with holding still when I truly needed to.

  18. Kristin January 4, 2013 at 5:30 pm #

    Illinois is the only state with mandatory PE *every day* for all students. That’s the distinction, for those arguing the point. Many other states mandate some sort of PE for K-12, but the law isn’t specific to the “daily” part and many students have a PE class much less frequently.

  19. Warren January 4, 2013 at 5:31 pm #

    Should have come to our high school, two female PE teachers, and alot of boys with crushes.

    @Jim Collins

    That story is just awful. It borders on cruel and unusual punishment. Something needs to be done.

  20. hineata January 4, 2013 at 6:42 pm #

    @ Jim Collins – surely that breaks some kind of
    U.N. charter somewhere. Seriously! That just sounds cruel. Maybe that’s why the U.S. hasn’t signed that one on the Rights of the Child – it might interfere with school policies…

    Honestly, I can’t imagine how kids survive a regime like that. Even in wartime POW camps the men were allowed outside to exercise. If I were those poor boys’ parents, I would be tempted to move somewhere backward-sounding, like Arkansas (to a foreigner, anyway!) and homeschool.

    As I’ve commented before, our kids get a mandated hour and twenty minutes ‘recess’ per six/six and a half hour school day, only ten minutes of which is usually ‘sit down, shut up and eat your lunch’ type time. The rest is expected to be outside time, unless the weather is really foul. And we outperform the US on the PISA ratings (OECD and partner countries’ assessments of 15 year olds’ achievements across reading, maths and science). Finland is even higher, and they too have a ‘relaxed’ schooling system, with access to recess. Australia is usally just below or just above us, and they have both a similar schooling system and a similar attitude to recess – i.e. mandatory, mostly for the teacher’s sanity!

    One thing that probably helps our scores, separate from recess, is that we break the year down into four ten-week terms with breaks of two weeks, two weeks, two weeks and then five to six weeks for the summer hoildays. I gather the US tends to have two long terms with a two-three month summer break. If that is right, then it seems to me like a lot of learning from the previous year would be lost over that very long break. if you were to re-organise your school year, and have shorter days but more of them, and recess mandatory, you might see an increase in both academic success and child/teacher sanity….

  21. AW13 January 4, 2013 at 6:42 pm #

    @Jim Collins: I agree with Warren. If my kid were in that situation, I’d seriously consider switching schools, stat!

    And re: the post: You mean to tell me that recess is beneficial? Well duh. (Or, as my mom used to say occasionally, when she was feeling sassy, “No sh!t, Sherlock.”)

  22. hineata January 4, 2013 at 6:43 pm #

    ‘usually’ – man, I hate typing!

  23. AW13 January 4, 2013 at 6:51 pm #

    @hineata: It seemed like every year, the idea of restructuring the school year was suggested in my former district. And every year, it was shot down, mainly because it caused more trouble for the parents if their children had more frequent vacations.

    Interestingly (or maybe tellingly, I don’t know) in the district where I live now, there is one elementary school that holds classes year round. This school has the lowest SES in the district, the most kids/families getting state and federal aid, and even allows kids to open enroll from the worst schools in the neighboring district. And its standardized test scores lead the district elementary schools every year. I love the idea of year round school, personally. That way, I wouldn’t have lost two to three (on average) weeks of instruction time to review of the material that everyone had forgotten over the summer.

  24. Sky January 4, 2013 at 8:10 pm #

    Hineta, education is a local issue in the U.S. and varies county to county, state to state. There are some school districts that have year-round schooling. Most don’t. It’s not the custom in America. There are reasons for this ranging from the inevitable business backlash (long summers are good for pools, amusement parks, water parks, beaches, camps, etc. because weather in most states does not permit visiting these places in winter or fall), the potential for increased educational expenses (for instance, having to air conditioning all school buildings through some very hot summers in some states), potential for increased childcare expenses for parents (arranging childcare on a one-long-break schedule is probably easier than on a multiple-short-break schedule), potential for hurting the employment prospects for teenagers (finding a job or internship you can work in two weeks segments several times a year is much harder than finding a job you can work full-time for 11 weeks straight), potential to hurt the employment prospects for teachers (many teach summer school or maintain other summer jobs and would have a harder time finding that kind of supplemental income with scattered breaks), the difficulty it would mean for summer sports training and summer sports such as swim teams, the difficulty it would pose for children who go to summer school to make up for classes they failed or to get ahead when they want to graduate early, and the romantic preference among many Americans for “long lazy summers” that force children to deal with and learn to overcome their boredom.

    All of that said, I’m not opposed to year-round schooling myself, but I think the pro’s and con’s have to be weighed and, honestly, the culture probably isn’t going to support it in most places. Studies don’t actually show much difference in test scores as a result of year-round schooling (when you control for other varibales), so it would have to be a cutlural and expense equation primarily.

  25. Are we there yet? January 4, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

    This is a tough one. Sometimes, recess or unstructured outdoor play is the only bargaining chip a teacher has with a kid. You wouldn’t want to overuse it but if framed correctly, it can serve as a meaningful consequence.

    I agree that the schools that do away with recess because it’s not applicable to the Real World are way off base: how do they think coffee shops stay in business? People in the Real World take breaks (ironically, it’s teachers who don’t get to leave their buildings — no errands or lunch with a friend, al, things most working people take for granted) and kids need them as well. When schools get off the agricultural calendar, with 10-16 weeks off each summer, we’ll discuss how they prepare kids for the Real World.

  26. Lauren January 4, 2013 at 8:33 pm #

    When I was a kid, we had mandatory PE every day, a morning recess, lunch, then an afternoon recess. And there usually weren’t teachers watching over us either. They were taking a break in their classrooms.

  27. Angelica January 4, 2013 at 8:42 pm #

    It’s not recess they need, it’s yoga. Clearly: yoga.

    On a serious note: Jim Collins: nightmare scenarios like that are one reason many parents are starting to homeschool. Additionally, the community needs to fight back on that one. Not being “allowed” to walk? Not cool. Who are they to say?

  28. Violet January 4, 2013 at 9:37 pm #

    Are we there yet: maybe you could take away lunch, or sleep? It makes as much sense. If you punish an overactive child who can’t concentrate by taking away recess, I am sure that the behavior will get worse.

  29. Merrick January 4, 2013 at 11:01 pm #

    At my kids elementary school, the teachers must have a signed permission slip to take away recess time. They have no such slip for my children, and never will. With each of them I have had a conversation, and told them that my children NEED downtime. Unstructured. And no, they aren’t allowed to take away recess, nor are they allowed to replace recess with “Walking laps” which has become the standard rather than keeping them in (which I actually do like better, at least they’re outside, in their own heads and getting some movement).

    Unfortunately, my middle son just moved to Middle School, where they have abolished sixth grade recess since my oldest attended. I LOVED that 6th grade playground. It was more fun than the elementary playground and it stood as a testament that 11 year olds are CHILDREN and should be allowed to be.

  30. Sarah in WA January 4, 2013 at 11:50 pm #

    One of the problems is that teachers no longer have any kind of leverage. As “Are We There Yet?” mentioned, recess can be a bargaining chip. It’s a terrible one, I admit, but teachers often don’t have much else.

    When I was teaching, I was often put in situations where discipline of some sort needed to happen, but my options were the taking away of recess or calling the parents. Usually, either option was bad. As it has been discussed, losing recess is not actually helpful for the kid’s behavior, and the parents would either not do anything or punish so severely that the child would resent me (making behavior that much worse). Of course, there are more positive approaches and I used those as well, but there were just certain incidents where I felt like the hammer really had to come down, but there was no good hammer to use.

    That said, I agree that kids need more recess and not less. I would sometimes take my students out on the playground and supervise them myself if things were just not working in the classroom. It made a world of difference.

  31. Sara January 5, 2013 at 1:46 am #

    Well said. :)

  32. Donna January 5, 2013 at 4:06 am #

    @hineata – The schools my daughter have been in – in two very different parts of the US about 5,000 miles apart – have had 4 marking periods with a break of at least a week in between. The school years starts in early August. They then get a week off on October, 2-3 weeks at Christmas, a week for spring break in March and then end at the end of May, with 2 months off for summer break. Not really that different from your system.

    As for test scores, considering the amount of completely uninterested children forced into college-based education in the US, our test scores are always going to be lower than most developed countries with better schooling options. The fact is that we have more kids than New Zealand (and Finland and Australia) has in total population that are ill-suited for or unintesterested going to college and yet are mandated by law to sit in classroom geared toward preparing them to go to college or warehousing them until they can drop out at 16. I’m all for recess but the disparities in education test scores have nothing to do with recess or a lack thereof.

  33. Jenna K. January 5, 2013 at 9:28 am #

    I think it’s lame that it took a study to prove this.

  34. CrazyCatLady January 5, 2013 at 11:48 am #

    Can we get them to now recommend that kids don’t need homework before a certain age? Late middle school comes to mind to me.

  35. Captain America January 5, 2013 at 12:39 pm #

    . . . let’s medicate the school administrators.

    I just finished a book on the educational textbook industry. It’s a pretty dismal lot running the schools, as a group. Perhaps with more pay we could attract more stronger teachers. Helps professionalize it.

  36. Katie January 5, 2013 at 1:45 pm #

    @Capt. America – What was that book?

  37. Karon January 5, 2013 at 3:22 pm #

    How about tackling the amount of time kids get for lunch next? My kids get 20 minutes TOTAL in the cafeteria – that includes getting in line, getting your lunch, finding a seat, eating, throwing your trash, and lining up to leave. How about time to socialize over food? Time to actually TASTE your food? Enough time to eat without inhaling military-style?

  38. Katie January 5, 2013 at 6:08 pm #


    That is terrible for kids. Eating fast is a good predictor of future obesity and teaching kids to eat like that is terrible. There isn’t anything at school that goes on that is so important they can’t give the kids enough time to actually eat at a proper pace.

  39. Taradlion January 5, 2013 at 7:25 pm #

    How about pro-recess t-shirts…

    Einstein had recess

    The President had recess

    ______ had recess

  40. lihtox January 5, 2013 at 9:44 pm #

    How long has recess been under attack? I wonder if we’re seeing whole communities where the young adults grew up without recess in the local schools, and what effect that has on the community.

    We had recess in elementary school, but in high school we had “study halls”. These were fine for me, because I was a loner who liked reading and working on homework in my free time, but maybe high schools should implement more breaks too—maybe they’re not out on the playground, but I’ll bet they could use the time to socialize, visit the library, watch videos on their smartphones— some uncontrolled free time.

  41. Jenny Islander January 6, 2013 at 12:41 am #

    @lihtox: My old school has open campus for lunch. This is workable only because outdoor sitting places and fast food joints are a short walk away from school and, of course, the kids get almost an hour for lunch. The open campus policy has been challenged on the grounds that high school kids who are free to leave will feel free to skip afternoon classes. The administration has consistently responded that any student who does so is free to fail.

    I wonder whether the high degree of responsibility in many local teenage jobs is part of why open campus is still in force. It’s hard to tell a kid that he can work around mechanized fishing equipment or pound nails all summer, but he can’t be trusted not to run away home and sit around eating M&Ms. Of course, just a few of the kids have these jobs–but treating all of the kids as though they are capable apprentice adults has not resulted in a wave of afternoon absenteeism. And the students can get out in the fresh air.

  42. hineata January 6, 2013 at 12:57 am #

    @Donna – sorry to play devil’s advocate, but the tests are averaged out, so population size shouldn’t make any difference. Even population type probably won’t account for the disparities, as both Australia and NZ have fairly diverse populations these days. I agree that a lot of kids are stuck in courses they shouldn’t be in – here it’s pretty much the same, as the school leaving age is also sixteen, although there are polytech courses kids can opt into around 15/16 if they are totally lost in the system.

    Actually I think school is a pretty rubbish thing allround for a significant number of kids. Recess though gives downtime and certainly with the kids I’ve worked with, running around outside and getting away from we adults for a while seems to have mental as well as physical and social benefits. And the kind of situation Jim was talking about amounts to cruelty, IMHO.

    Interesting about your schools’ timing. Obviously I’ve been reading too many novels! Just assumed you were all pretty much the same …..

  43. AW13 January 6, 2013 at 9:08 am #

    @Jenny Islander: My high school had open campus for juniors/seniors only, but it worked out nicely since the cafeteria was so small. I also don’t recall a rush of afternoon ansenteeism. And I love that this school says that the kids are “free to fail”. I taught two classes in a school in which the principal promoted the “failure is not an option” theory, and gave the students an ungodly amount of time to turn in homework, take tests, etc. And we were never allowed to give them a 0 in the grade book. It should come as no surprise that when the kids got to the high school the next year, they were woefully unprepared. I have always maintained that yes, it was possible to fail my class, and I would hold up my end of the bargain, but if the student didn’t hold up theirs, failure was a very likely consequence.

  44. Aimee January 7, 2013 at 11:44 am #

    I often thought it was totally stupid to have my fidgety boy miss recess because of something he did to annoy his teacher. It happened all the time. It never made the afternoon better, only worse, and I never understood why his own teacher, and the principal, couldn’t see the abundantly clear cause-and-effect. I wish that I had spoken out to the school about it more often. Oddly enough, now that he’s in middle school, he is now ENCOURAGED to take a walk in the hall, etc, if he’s feeling cooped up.

  45. Jenny Islander January 8, 2013 at 12:53 am #

    @Aimee: Really? I thought that common-sense practice had gone the way of the dodo!

    When I was in early primary–this would have been K, first, or second–two or three of the boys just could not sit still. Our school had the main classrooms arranged around a central space that could be a cafeteria, gym, or assembly hall. (It’s grown since then.) So the teacher, whose desk faced the door, told them to go run around the edges of that room until they felt tired. And so they did. And they came back in, sat down, and passed in all their subjects.

  46. Jennifer January 8, 2013 at 3:25 am #

    I’m a 40 year old adult who works in a computer based job which involves intense concentration, and I know very well that I need breaks and some exercise during the day to function efficiently.

    Fortunately, I can get up, jog down a couple flights of stairs and grab a coffee, or go out for a stroll under the tree at lunch, or even a quick walk back and forth in the hallway, as I stretch out the kinks.

    I feel for kids, particularly the active, fidgety ones. My nephew is one like that – if he doesn’t get a chance to get out and run around and make noise, his behaviour steadily deteriorates.

  47. jess January 12, 2013 at 3:05 am #

    As an educator I hate to take away recess but that’s often the only “currency” that matters to the kids.


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