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Should Schools Take a Break from Recess?

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Does it make sense, educationally and developmentally, to eliminate recess for students in elementary school? That question is the subject of debate among educators. What do teachers and parents have to say?

"What's your favorite subject?" asks the ancient joke.

"Recess!" is the reply.

But, today, some students -- and teachers -- might not find the joke funny. That's because some cities, like Atlanta, have eliminated or cut back on recess in elementary school to free more time for instruction.

So why cut recess? With widespread stress being put on standardized tests throughout the United States, students need to prepare by spending more time on academics, the general argument goes. The extra time has to come from somewhere, and recess seems like a good place to trim.

"The big thing in this country now is standards," Marie Diamond, president of the Connecticut Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, stated in a recent Hartford Courant interview.

"We've raised the bar; our standards are higher," says Diamond. At the same time, she adds, "The majority of kids need some time for recess, just like people in offices need coffee breaks."

But the key to success in school and in life, many education experts say, is academic learning. Shaving a few minutes from recess, or even eliminating it altogether, they argue, won't hurt children. Play has educational value, they admit, but play can occur outside of school; school should be devoted to academics.


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Recess Before Lunch Can Mean Happier, Healthier Kids
Recess follows lunch almost as predictably as four follows three, because it always has been that way. Principals who have put recess first, though, have noticed children eat more and behave better after lunch. Included: Ideas for making the change to recess before lunch.

Playground Pass Creates Recess Success!
If you've done recess duty, you know the playground is not all fun and games! Wouldn't you love a simple, straightforward teaching tool that steers students away from trouble and into recess success? The Playground Pass does just that!

Recess: Necessity or Nicety?
The pressure for schools to improve student test scores is so intense that some are abandoning the childhood treasure of "recess" in lieu of more on-task time. Education World asked educators about recess practices at their schools and the importance of free time for kids to be kids. Included: Tips for a safe and productive recess period.

No Break Today!
Faced with a need to find more time to meet increasing educational standards, 40 percent of schools in the United States have either cut recess or are considering doing so. But does cutting recess really gain more learning time? Read what the experts -- and columnist Linda Starr -- have to say about the growing trend toward "all work and no play."

Be sure to check out our A-to-Z Glossary of School Issues.



Even as eliminating recess has become something of a trend, some other schools are reversing the trend by reinstating recess. In Berkeley Hall School in Los Angeles, recess had been replaced with physical education classes. But first- and second-graders weren't ready to give up some free time each day. Teachers reinstated recess for them.

"Recess is different from PE," said Vicki Murphy, a second-grade teacher, in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor. "The kids need unstructured time where they can make up their own rules."


Responses on the TeachTalk listserv to the question "Has anyone tried [doing away with recess] and how are teachers and children coping?" drew responses that mostly favored staying with traditional recess.

"When I read in the paper this summer about many schools abandoning recess, I couldn't believe my eyes," Diane McElroy told Education World. That's when McElroy, a veteran second-grade teacher at Rio del Mar School in Aptos, California, posted the question on the Net.

One teacher responded that 30 years ago she was in school and never had recess, so she didn't see the trend as that significant. But the majority of teachers who responded favored keeping recess. Several said cutting recess was forced on teachers and students with no input from them.

McElroy concluded, "When I told my class that many schools were doing away with recess, you'd think they were hearing about the Grinch That Stole Christmas!"


Abolishing free time during the school day, observers say, began with pressure from international competition.

"It all began with the 'Nation at Risk' report in 1983," Charles Doyle, assistant dean of the School of Education at Chicago's DePaul University, told the Christian Science Monitor. The federal report cast light on American schoolchildren's poor standing internationally and led to a call for standardized testing.

In other countries -- such as Russia, and Japan -- students have little free time, defenders of the anti-recess movement say.

But -- some educators point out -- in Japan, teachers, parents, and Education Ministry officials actually talk about building more free time into students' days.

But talk is all they seem to do. Except for brief breaks between classes, most Japanese students still have no recess at school.

"Completely free time? I think it's impossible in Japan," says Sumie Kakemizu, a former elementary schoolteacher who is now a politician. "Most teachers are too afraid of doing something different from others, something not written in their teaching manuals."

A built-in contradiction in attitudes toward education influences educators in Japan. On the one hand, educators are criticized for putting too much pressure on students for academic excellence. On the other hand, educators are criticized if students don't excel academically.


An online Parent Soup poll on the question "Do you think recess should be eliminated in elementary schools?" drew this response from parents: Of 1,506 total votes, 3 percent said yes, and 97 percent answered no.

Right now, it seems the verdict is out on whether increasing numbers of schools will trim or eliminate recess. But if parents and teachers have a voice, recess isn't going to disappear anytime soon.



Recess Backlash: Parents Say It Pays to Play
The American playground is now also a battleground for parents, educators, and policymakers -- with many struggling to defend the tradition of recess against the incursion of tight budgets. (Christian Science Monitor - November 16, 2004)

On the Elimination of Recess
In this Education Week column, Katherine Schultz (an assistant professor of literacy and teacher education in the graduate school of education of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia) speaks eloquently about the foolishness of considering recess "wasted" time in a child's life and education.

All Work, No Play At School
A Christian Science Monitor news story examines how recess is handled in countries such as Japan, Germany, and Russia.

Parents Aren't Sitting Still as Recess Disappears
From Parents in Action, speaking up on an issue that matters to them.

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Article by Sharon Cromwell
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Originally published 10/09/1998
Last updated 1/15/2020