How to Stop Ruining Recess

Valerie adhfzzfasa
at The Washington Post published this wonderful piece by Angela Hanscom, founder of TimberNook, a nature-based development program designed to foster creativity and independent play outdoors in New England. Here’s an excerpt. And since most schools do NOT have a forest at hand,  feel free to suggest ways to incorporate these ideas in an urban or suburban setting:

How schools ruined recess — and four things needed to fix it, by Angela Hanscom

…I’m in the beautiful country of New Zealand. Rolling green hills surround us at every turn. Here in the small patch of woods, the children are at a TimberNook camp enjoying their freshly cooked popcorn in their bare feet, while sheep wander through the trees nearby. A child suddenly spies the sheep and puts away her snack. “Can I have some rope and scissors please?” The child politely asks. With no questions asked, the young girl is given ample rope and a pair of scissors.

This six-year-old child quickly gets to work. She cuts the rope to the size she wants and makes a large loop at the end. She only asks the adult for help with tying the secure knot. “I’m going to lasso some sheep!” she yells. Other children take notice and start to create their own lassos. Before long, the children are running through the woods trying to lasso the sheep.

The scene that takes place in front of us is therapeutic on all levels: laughter rings through the woods, as the children quickly learn how to maneuver around the tree stumps with little bare feet softly padding along on the dirt floor. They learn how to work as a team to shepherd the sheep. They also gently stroke the soft wool of the sheep, while talking soothingly to the animals. In other words, through this one child-led play experience, they practiced problem solving, fine motor skills, balance, quick reflexes, empathy, teamwork, endurance, and touch processing skills.

The problem is that most adults would try and prevent this sort of play. Everything would be questioned and controlled from the very beginning. There is often no trust when it comes to free play for children, creating a highly regulated and controlled recess atmosphere. A recess that is consistently short and very restrictive allows few opportunities for healthy sensory development – leading to potential difficulties with attention, learning, and behavior.

What if we took a totally different approach to recess instead?

Read the whole essay here.

What if recess wasn't JUST to get kids' energy out?

What if recess wasn’t JUST to let kids run off steam?

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30 Responses to How to Stop Ruining Recess

  1. Kierstin February 12, 2015 at 10:55 am #

    I lived in New Zealand when I was little. At that time we weren’t required to wear shoes to school, and although each room was it’s own separate building, there were few paved areas. The entire school was built in a semi-circle around the playground, which backed up to a forest.
    I think a lot of ideas about what schooling should be can be seen in what school buildings look like. Too often they are built as big, square, business-like towers.
    Even if you just look at museums that are built in the city, they manage to incorporate beautiful and interesting structures and plantings and things to convey the sense that this is a place of exploration.

  2. Jill February 12, 2015 at 11:29 am #

    Public schools in my neck of the woods look very much like minimum-security prisons. The private school that my son attended was architecturally more attractive, but parents tended to view recess as a time-waster. One father loudly objected to it, as well as to gym class, saying that he wanted his son to have more math and science classes instead.

  3. Rick February 12, 2015 at 11:45 am #

    We’re thinking of sending our kid to a Sudbury school for this reason. Anyone have any experience with it?

  4. Powers February 12, 2015 at 11:59 am #

    I’m not sure the sheep would be okay with this. And who taught them how to tie a proper lasso?

  5. BL February 12, 2015 at 12:00 pm #

    “he wanted his son to have more math and science classes instead.”

    One wonders if this son is studying *any* math or science right now:

    “Yet as I kept reading the document’s 280 pages of lofty prose, I noticed something odd: The framework does not expect students to use any kind of analytical mathematics while studying science.”

  6. gina February 12, 2015 at 12:02 pm #

    RICK: My son attended a “Summerhill” type school which is similar to Sudbury. I loved it and wish I could have continued sending my kids to it. Sadly, we moved and there was no similar school where we were. I think the “free learning” approach is aweseome and I have always been that kind of parent.

  7. Reziac February 12, 2015 at 12:47 pm #

    If the sheep aren’t okay with being lassoed, then maybe the kid who gets jerked off his feet will learn not to lasso random sheep. But he tried, right? he learned something.

    My junior and high schools were large buildings, two city blocks in length. We had usually 5 or 6 classes and 2 or 3 study halls. And between each we had three minutes to get to the next class. Invariably consecutive classes would be as far apart as possible, so like it or not we all walked about a mile a day at a swift pace. It’s annoying when you’re a kid, but with mature hindsight, it’s pretty obvious they understood that kids need to move, and they were making sure we DID.

    Your body gets bored too.

  8. lollipoplover February 12, 2015 at 1:03 pm #

    I have to agree that recess is being ruined, but I disagree that schools are ruining it. I think it’s the parents who don’t want their kids to get dirty, wet, or hurt and complain persistently to school officials that lead to the highly restricted, supervised play at recess.

    I love our elementary school. But they won’t let the kids anywhere near snow in winter(we’ve had snow cover for months now) and restrict their play to the *safer* blacktop area. But at least they still get to play outside. When I first heard of the snow ban, I asked my daughter why and she said the recess aide told her that parents complain to much when you get your clothes wet or muddy.
    Can we all stop complaining about this??
    I send my kids to school in play clothes because…I expect them to play. In winter, they wear boots to school but can’t walk off the heavily salted blacktop. At least they get to walk to and from school in the snow.

    Yet we expect them to learn to read at much earlier ages and achieve academic proficiency and achievement in sciences but won’t let them learn by playing in the very teachable SNOW. Because parents complain!

    I think the logical balance to screen time is green time. Kids can unwind, recharge their batteries, and get much needed play breaks if they are allowed to explore at recess. Restricted them to puppy mill-type confinement is cruel and not beneficial at all to their development. I wouldn’t expect my high-energy bird dogs to go without daily, off-leash freedom to run and sniff and explore their environment. Young children need it too.

  9. Lola February 12, 2015 at 2:21 pm #

    @lollypoplover: I couldn’t agree more. At my children’s school, they’re not allowed outside during recess when it’s raining. They’re not allowed in the classrooms either, because material tends to get ruined. So they cram the kids in the hallways, where no running or screaming is allowed, and are encouraged to play indoor games.
    I’ve repeatedly complained about this, and claimed that may parents like me would be more than happy to sign a permission for our kids to get outside with proper garments and get some fresh, albeit wet, air. After all, it doesn’t rain that often or copiously where I live.
    The answer? Oh, we would love that. Children get really difficult to manage when they don’t run off some steam. Trouble is, whenever kids get just a bit wet, parents give us hell about it, and start to rant off about their precious snowflakes’ health. Plus, we just don’t have enough personnel to watch over both the playgrounds and the hallways for those who don’t have parents’ permission, so…
    Fortunately, we’re switching schools next term. I’m sure my kids will appreciate it.

  10. Steve February 12, 2015 at 2:32 pm #

    Here’s another good article about the importance of recess and playtime for kids. It’s an academic report in PDF that would be good to send to your school principals and superintendents.

    Among other things, it says:

    “Educational research, in contrast to current educational policy, consistently indicates that break time does have positive “educational value.” For example, in four field experiments conducted in American elementary schools, we found (Pellegrini & Davis, 1993; Pellegrini, Huberty, &
    Jones, 1995) that the longer children worked without a break
    on standardized tasks, the less attentive to the task they became. In addition, children were more attentive to class work after recess than before.”


    That alone should be enough to convince a school administrator that recesses should be longer and/or more frequent. But, alas, administrators are NOT known for wanting to change anything quickly… which is too bad.


    On a different web site, I saw a comment by someone who said when she was in school, if a student in class was too inattentive, the teacher would ask him to go outside and run around the school. The number of laps depended on the circumstances. This commenter also remembered one time when the teacher took the entire class outside and they all ran around the school together, and also picked up trash. It was a memorable experience and always settled the kids down.

    As I type that story, it makes me wonder if I didn’t also have a teacher who did that at least once. But I don’t know for sure. Times were so different when I was a kid, and Free Range was the norm.

    I remember a snowy winter day at school when there was a huge snowball fight at recess on the playground. It began with one or two students pelting another student with snowballs, then those three went after another, and another, until there was a huge mob roaming the playground in search of anyone who hadn’t been pelted yet. It was a sort of initiation, I guess. But I didn’t appreciate it, (Ha!) because I was one of the last to be targeted.

    And what was the supervising teachers’ attitude to this event? They were smiling and only concerned that students wearing glasses didn’t get their glasses smashed.

  11. lollipoplover February 12, 2015 at 2:40 pm #

    @Steve- running laps??

    I volunteered as a running coach for our elementary school running club. On the first day, after stretching, we lined up to go run a few warm-up laps around the school. One of the kids stopped me because she was concerned. She was not told we would be running on grass. Yes, grass. She said she was wearing expensive sneakers and didn’t want them to get dirty. I weep for our youth.

  12. Dee February 12, 2015 at 2:51 pm #

    Love every last thing about this. At our school, it’s definitely the school that keeps kids from enjoying recess. Parents have been begging for more recess time and they gave it to them – 5 minutes more. They finally added a play structure but it’s so safe my son thinks its boring.

    @Rick – where to you live? In Mass, or near another Sudbury school? Chatted w/ someone today about a new school in our area following the Acton model (Austin, TX).

  13. Christina February 12, 2015 at 3:09 pm #

    I went to a public HS in the US for a semester (long story), and my friends and I used to jokingly call it “the pen”. Turns out, the architecture firms in the US that build prisons also build many of our nation’s public schools…

  14. ariel February 12, 2015 at 3:27 pm #

    luckies!!! when i was in the lower grades (kindergarten to 6th grade), none of the schools i went to had “official” recesses. it was always up to the individual teachers to decide “oh hey it’s nice outside; we should go to the playground.”.

    the private middle school i went to had recess; but it was limited to what ‘level’ you were. the lowest level (the ‘negative’ level) go no recess. the lowest positive got 10 minutes, the highest level got about an hour.
    what level you were was measured by how many demerits you got. you could be one of the most well-behaved children in the school, but if you got too many demerits, even for small infractions, you were on a low level.
    my first week of being there, i wound up on the ‘negative’ level. i wasn’t told exactly what i’d done to get there, just that i’d gotten too many demerits.

  15. Warren February 12, 2015 at 3:29 pm #


    They are more like a prison that just looks.

    I still find it amazing that parents have allowed the schools to be this way. I have heard numerous people say that in high school they are not allowed to leave the campus when they don’t have a class.

    My high school, and the high schools my kids have attended, and are attending do not restrict movement like that at all. Whether the class has been canceled, or a spare in their schedule, or lunch, all students are free to come and go as they please. Many of them go to main street for lunch, or just to get away for a time.

    Put it this way, legally an employer cannot tell their employee they cannot leave the property for lunch. Why do we allow kids to be treated like second class citizens.

    You want recess back to where it used to be. Sue the school boards. You had recess, and now your kids are being discrimated against. Find out the parents that complain all the time, that caused the recess to be made so restrictive, and name them in the suit.
    Do whatever you can to make the school admin’s life a living hell. Be louder and more harassing than the parents protecting their snowflakes.

    Schools for the most part have only done this to recess to shut up the complaining parents. So make them shut you up, now.

  16. Jenny Islander February 12, 2015 at 4:17 pm #

    While I have issues with academic practice at local schools, I think that their recess policy is still good. I’ve seen it go all around the compass at my old elementary school, for example. We had a playground that rambled into the woods when I was little. Then they started telling us that we couldn’t go into the woods (an acre belonging to the neighboring hospital) because boogeymen, and we couldn’t build forts from fallen sticks and logs because lawsuits, and we couldn’t go into the stream because dirt, yadda yadda. In upper primary, we arrived one fall to find the fun equipment all ripped out and exercise stations installed in their place. There were even little signs explaining the proper number of sets and reps at each station. The idea was that at recess time, we would all stream happily over to the parallel bars and do straight-arm lifts. So we spent the year sitting sulkily on and around the equipment. There was moss on the metal parts by next fall.

    Well, the school is still there, but the exercise stations are long gone. Kids are allowed into the woods again. And, yes, they still get recess twice a day.

    Meanwhile, a newer elementary school was build to provide maximum southern exposure for their playground–and leave in as many of the pre-existing trees as possible. You have to walk over a wide gangway to get into the main entrance because the school is built into a hill, with a very large sunken paved yard between the front wall of the school and the edge of the street. When it’s blowing 50–which it does frequently–kids can still go outside to play.

  17. Donna February 12, 2015 at 4:26 pm #

    lollipoplover – There is a lot of push and pull between parents on this issue. I know some parents who went to the school to fight for outside recess despite our flooded playground (drainage issue last year that is now fixed) and other parents who consistently tell their kids to stay out of the mud when we are all on the playground after school. It seems what they want is recess … but only if it is sunny, dry and 75 degrees (apparently we should all live in San Diego).

    I can see both sides of this argument. I support lots of recess, but I don’t personally enjoy being outside in bad weather and I detest sitting around in wet clothes. I don’t have a problem with my child CHOOSING to play outside in just about any weather, but I don’t feel any need to insist that she do something that I know would make me miserable. It comes back to that respecting children for the human beings that they are thing. I want the kids who want to go run around in the rain to have that option, but I don’t expect everyone else to be miserable for it.

    We also tend to look at this situation from a very middle class bias. It would be great if everyone could afford suitable winter clothes, rain gear, play clothes and the regular destruction of shoes, but such is not life. For many families, these things are a serious hardship.

    But I don’t understand the no playing in the snow rule. It is not as though playing in the snow is mandatory.

  18. Sandi February 12, 2015 at 10:06 pm #

    At the local school, the kids are not allowed to play in the snow, so they have to stay on the (ice covered) concrete pad. One day when I was there during recess, my son was having fun sliding down a snow pile and a school employee (who knew I was his mother, standing 5 ft away) came and scolded him and made him stop. Just ridiculous.

  19. Papilio February 13, 2015 at 7:21 am #

    I’m surprised those kids still learn anything when they’re not allowed to move all day. That would drive even ME mad.
    As far as I’m aware, things haven’t gotten this crazy around here; primary schools have to give the kids some kind of recess/break/time off or they’d be breaking the law (yes, the Big Bad Government. Cue scary music). Of course kids here do have weather-appropriate clothing because walking/cycling is pretty inevitable (unless the kid is quadriplegic, I suppose).
    I get the impression that the news on negative consequences of stuff like this usually reaches us before we even get as far as actually implementing that stuff in the first place. Thanks, America.

    “A recess that is consistently short and very restrictive”

    Perhaps the adults think the kids ARE the sheep?

  20. bsolar February 13, 2015 at 10:39 am #

    @Powers, the sheep can easily teach small kids not to overdo things either by running away or headbutting the most annoying brats. Basically there is no need to helicopter the kids and no need to helicopter the sheep either: they’ll likely sort it out themselves. I guess that for the sheep it’s also better than having to sort it out with hungry wolves instead…

  21. lollipoplover February 13, 2015 at 1:07 pm #

    @Donna- Recess should be about free play. Period.
    There are many different outlets for play. I’ve seen chess tables on recess yards. All kids are different, but treating snow like it’s plutonium and limiting normal playtime activities for the sake of a few parents who complain in BS.
    I would argue it’s more dangerous to have blacktop only recess as it restricts large groups of kids to confined spaces and can increase collisions. Let them spread out and choose their free play. But kids need outdoor time (vitamin D) each day for healthy development.

    My younger daughter will run and play with her friends the entire recess period. The older one (11) has been spending many of her recess periods working on community service projects (sending packages to troops, fundraisers for needy families, etc.) as she doesn’t like the limited play options of winter recess. She said she would prefer to play basketball outside, but it’s too crowded to be enjoyable so she volunteers instead.
    Her recess, her outlet, her choice.

  22. Kiwimum February 13, 2015 at 6:46 pm #

    While we’re talking New Zealand (why oh why did it have to be a sheep anecdote… 😉 ), we had a very sad incident here a couple of days ago when 3 kids (ages 10, 5 and 5) walking to school together dashed across a busy road at a stupid place (there was a perfectly good traffic light crossing very close by) and were hit by a car (another mum from their school). Awful, although apparently they are improving in hospital.
    Anyway in the immediate aftermath there was some police commentary about how kids shouldn’t walk to school unsupervised. Radio New Zealand picked up on this and interviewed the Director of the child injury prevention service Safekids. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by her response – audio at

  23. Emily February 14, 2015 at 10:24 am #

    I’ve always been an introvert, even as a child. Growing up, I was much happier in school when I was allowed to go to the library or the computer room at recess or lunch, so I could have some quiet time to decompress. When it was “outside, or outside,” I was absolutely miserable. So, to summarize, I think that, if it’s logistically possible, kids should be given the option at recess to run around, climb trees, play in the snow, play on the playground equipment (that hopefully hasn’t been dumbed down too much), make up imagination games, OR read in the library if they want to.

  24. Warren February 14, 2015 at 9:49 pm #

    Or you can get your ass outside in some non recyled air, and find a place to sit and read, thus allowing the same staff to supervise you, instead of doubling the recess supervision to cover muliple venues. Just saying. Teachers deserve a coffee break as well, and the more we try to accomodate each and every little snowflake, the more demands are put onto staffing.

  25. Emily February 15, 2015 at 12:32 am #

    @Warren–Actually, there were times when I was in grade five and six (and maybe seven; I don’t remember) when we had the option of taking a library pass or a computer pass at recess, and going to the library or the computer room. So, I wasn’t asking for anything special, per se; I was simply availing myself of existing recess options. I should have made that clear before.

  26. Jenny Islander February 15, 2015 at 12:37 am #

    My old elementary school used to send somebody down to the thrift shop to buy shirts, pants, and socks in bulk (and they also took donations). They kept them in a big barrel. If you got filthy or soaked, you put your own clothes in a bag to take home and changed into something from the barrel that fit. Yes, it looked doofy, but everybody knew that that was what you did if you were having so much fun on the playground that you got filthy or soaked!

  27. Jen February 15, 2015 at 8:45 am #

    When my daughter was little, our favorite daycare provider decided it wasn’t economically feasible to work at the center and started taking a few children in her own home while she raised her own children–moving our daughter there was the BEST decision we ever made. They had tons of free play, were outside rain or shine. I had to send a huge bag every day — Wellies for going to search for frogs in the brook, sneakers for running and playing and hiking to pick berries or flowers in the fields, changes of clothes to replace the ones that inevitably got wet or filthy. Often, lunches were leftovers from the family dinner and snacks were whatever they picked in the woods or garden or something they made themselves. I could always tell if she had a good day by how dirty she was when I picked her up. Sometimes I’d get a call alerting me to a particularly astounding bump or bruise so I wouldn’t be shocked at pick up — but nearly every day, I’d pick her up bumped, bruised, scratched, filthy AND HAPPY!
    We went to a Montessori preschool at 4 1/2 — similar environment though more to explore academically. Lots of field trips, child-led learning experiences and plenty of chances to be competent. Loved it and would have continued if it were feasible but dependent care credits don’t apply once children are old enough for public school.
    Now we are in public school. the happiness quotient has gone way down. No time for free play, or free reading. At least we still have recess and art and music but exploration is just as important as instruction. If the habit isn’t encouraged now, it will be lost by the time they are adults.

  28. JP Merzetti February 16, 2015 at 12:54 am #

    How much does recess (whatever it is) resemble all the other environs of a child’s life?
    School playgrounds aren’t exactly cookie-cutter (though perhaps new building codes are aiming in that direction.)
    Recess used to be de-stress and decompress.
    Which meant more or less whatever it was a kid needed a bit of a break from, at the time.
    (Structure, of one sort or another…but especially adult-imposed structure.)
    The operative thing being kid-centered.

    I recall many moments in my life, walking down a city street during recess or lunch time…and a block away and out of sight….the sound came to me. Like a sound of pure nature. Kids.
    Making all the noise that kids make. Doing what kids do.
    Not so much fancy gear or great apps….or sophisto-supervision, either.

    Whatever happened to the ball on the wall and the endless rhymed nonsense that girls used to recite? ( I remember the cadence.)
    Or hopscotch. Or marbles. Or a million other innocuous articles of fancy that kids pulled out of pockets.

    Recess didn’t used to be constructed and instructed.
    It just was.
    All kids ever needed was a bit of time and space.
    They did the rest. It worked fine – it wasn’t broken.
    But we couldn’t leave it alone. We had to fix it.

    Maybe it’s time to let them fix what we broke.
    I’m sure they’d be quite good at it, once they got the hang of it.

    Why don’t we stop trying to “teach” kids how to be kids?

  29. lollipoplover February 16, 2015 at 3:04 pm #

    @JP Merzetti-

    Wall ball is still played and kids walking home from school carrying basketballs and footballs they brought in for recess is still a common sight.
    Jump rope rhymes like “Cinderella dressed in Yellow went to meet her fellow” are still being sung in recess yards and in driveways around here.
    Oh how I wish they would play marbles! I spent equal time on jungle gyms and hardcore marble games at recess. My younger daughter brings in these little plastic shopkins toys to trade with her friends and likes to recap at dinner how stoked she is that she traded a Donna Donut for a Frank Furter and Cheese Kate. She got them for Christmas and has been making recess transactions ever since. I remember trades for toys at recess (or candy!) and winning precious marbles. Mom yelled at me because I forgot to take them out of my pockets before putting them in the wash.

    Some elementary aged kids are remarkable good at finding ways to entertain themselves and play with just the fundamentals. Give them space to spread out and some free choice and they will play nicely.
    But so many kids spend most of their waking hours supervised, in adult-directed activities, some of them honestly don’t know what to do with themselves when given free time. It’s sadly getting to the point of needing to teach them how to play without an adult. A lot of them don’t know how.

  30. JP Merzetti February 17, 2015 at 12:41 am #


    I giggled like anything over the marbles in the wash…sweet memories.
    (peewees, aggies, steelies, jumbos, starries and stripes)

    That’s the sad thing though: most anyone who ever turned creative in their adult life would attest to the simple fact that this stuff was born in a child’s imagination…
    I’m a musician….a songwriter….
    and one of my favorite stories to tell is about when I was pretty young, and my mother used to adore Swan Lake.
    So I’d sit and listen to it, for hours on end.
    And although she explained to me that it was a ballet – and ladies would dance and pretend to be swans….
    in my imagination it was different.
    I’d sit back and close my eyes and listen… the soundtrack that swelled around the movie behind my eyes:
    What I saw – was real swans.
    Through the grand crescendo………tens of thousands of them, turning the sky white, all coming in for a soft landing upon the lake.

    Imagination is the most precious thing of all to a kid.
    We should encourage it, and not try to kill it, or value-add it (for fun and profit) or whatever other reasons we require them to suppress it for.
    Kids have high-octane bundles of mystery and magic, all brand new and unstained or spoiled.
    What comes later comes soon enough, but it’s worth fighting for, to give them something they’ll treasure all their life, and even pass along.

    Here’s a question: How many young wall-ball and jumprope artists grow up to be knockout R&B singers?
    (or their fans……….I’d say quite a few.)