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ImageRecess Is Alive,
(Mostly) Well

A few years ago parent groups were angered by news that recess was being eliminated at many schools. A new report shows that most elementary schools continue to offer recess, although children may get less time to play. Included: New information on the status of recess.

With apologies to Mark Twain, reports of recesss demise are premature.

A recent report from the Center for Public Education (CPE) indicates that the majority of U.S. elementary school children -- nine out of ten -- have regularly-scheduled recess.

I think the message is getting out how important physical activity is," said Brenda Z. Greene, director of school health programs for the National School Boards Association (NSBA), which has been concerned about reports that many schools were dropping recess.

While recesss survival is good news for child advocates and health experts monitoring the problem of childhood obesity, the bad news is that some schools are continuing to trim minutes from recess to gain more time for academics. Also, students in high-poverty areas, who have the fewest opportunities for outdoor play, are the least likely to have recess.


The center report, Time Out: Is Recess in Danger?", was compiled by center staff members who reviewed data from different sources.

While over the past few years statistics indicating that large numbers of schools were eliminating recess generated a lot of public concern, some digging showed that those figures did not accurately reflect the recess landscape, according to the center. (See But I thought I heard that...)

Teachers will tell you when kids have had time to be physically active and socialize, they are more attentive."

We were getting a lot of questions from school board members about recess disappearing -- we decided to look at it and look at the trends," said Patte Barth, director of the Center for Public Education, during a press conference conducted by phone.

The reality of the status of recess was surprising and reassuring. Most elementary students get recess every day, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Education.

The CDC estimates that elementary students have recess for an average of 4.9 days per week in the schools that report regularly scheduling it. The U.S. Department of Education survey shows that 88 percent of elementary schools give first graders daily recess, and 83 percent provide it every day to sixth graders.


But while recess may not be vanishing, its been shrinking in some districts. Desperate for more instructional time in math and language arts, some schools have been chipping away at the recess period.

The CDC and the Department of Education estimated average daily recess times in 2007 at between 24 and 30 minutes. That is an area the center wants to continue monitoring, said Barth. We dont want recess to go below 30 minutes a day," she said. Schools should understand that they could hit diminishing returns [by drastically shrinking recess for instructional time]. Children need a break."

Interestingly, recess has been holding its own against academics in the competition for precious minutes during the school day. In a 2007 survey by the Center on Education Policy (CEP), many school districts reported increasing time on math and reading since 2001 because of pressure from the accountability measures of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. But they were more likely to cut time from science and social studies instruction than physical education, recess, or art. About 20 percent of respondents said NCLB was prompting them to shorten recess. But more than one-third of respondents -- 36 percent -- said that instead of cutting recess time, they reduced the amount of instructional time in social studies. Another 28 percent cut back on the amount of science instruction rather than reduce recess time.

The benefits of recess go beyond physical activity. It builds social skills, provides opportunities for conflict resolution, allows kids to schedule meetings, and stimulates creativity."

Districts with schools labeled in need of improvement under NCLB were far more likely to cut back on other subjects to free up more time for math and language arts instruction -- but not more likely to cut recess.


The need for more instructional time, as well as safety concerns, has had more of an effect on the status of recess in high-poverty, urban districts. Students in those areas are the least likely to have any recess. Many of those schools lack the facilities and supervision necessary for children to play outside, noted Barth. Some administrators in those schools fear they cannot guarantee childrens safety when they are outdoors and are wary of possible litigation if a student is hurt.

Urban school leaders need to be encouraged to find solutions to the recess problem, perhaps by reaching out to the community, Barth added. School officials might be able to find space at a local Y or community facility and recruit volunteers to provide supervision so kids can enjoy some unstructured play time, even if there are fewer options for activities than if they were outside. There may be places where schools have to limit the choices [of activities] during recess because of lack of supervision," Greene noted.


NSBA is encouraged by the news of recesss place in the school day because it promotes recess as part of a comprehensive in-school physical activity program and the chance to play provides many other positives for kids. The benefits of recess go beyond physical activity," Greene said. It builds social skills, provides opportunities for conflict resolution, allows kids to schedule meetings, and stimulates creativity."

That outlet during the day is so important for children that Greene said she would discourage schools from withholding recess as a punishment for students who misbehave or dont complete assignments. There are better ways to discipline kids than by eliminating recess," she said. Lets keep the disciplinary action aligned with the infraction."

While recess also can be a stressful time for educators, with its potential for playground squabbles and bullying, schools need to provide adequate playground supervision and look for teachable moments, added Greene. Any caring adult watching can see whats happening and decide what to do to make it better for all kids," she said. Those [playground disputes] are great opportunities for lessons. If bullying arises, some teachers can carry those lessons into the classrooms."

And teachers can attest to the positive affects of allowing children to be children for at least a little while each day, Greene noted. Teachers will tell you when kids have had time to be physically active and socialize, they are more attentive."


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