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No Break Today


Faced with a need to find more time to meet increasing educational standards, a number of U.S. schools have either eliminated recess altogether or reduced the amount of recess time students get. Eliminating or reducing recess, some policymakers say, gains more time for learning. But does it gain more learning time?

Memo to All Employees: Beginning today, all morning and afternoon coffee breaks will be eliminated and the lunch break will be shortened to ten minutes. This action has been taken to increase time-on-task and boost achievement, allowing us to better meet newly implemented productivity standards. The no-break policy also will avoid hot-coffee accidents and related lawsuits and save personnel time formerly devoted to coffee making and cleanup.

Does the above memo sound unenforceable? Does it sound like a workplace revolution in the making? It might be both -- if it was being delivered to adult workers. But it isn't. Instead, the message -- with a little paraphrasing! -- is one that more and more school districts are delivering to their students. And, so far, the resulting protests have been largely ignored.

A 2005 survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 83 percent to 88 percent of children in public elementary schools have recess of some sort. But the number of recess sessions per day and the duration of the recess periods have been steadily declining. Since the 1970s, children have lost about 12 hours per week in free time, including a 25 percent decrease in play and a 50 percent decrease in unstructured outdoor activities, according to another study. That reduction is, in large part, an attempt to increase learning time in the face of increasing educational standards.

Does the phrase "Penny wise and pound foolish" ring a bell?

Yes, eliminating recess gains more time for learning, but does it gain more learning time? Most knowledgeable experts say no. Many agree with educational psychologist Jane M. Healy, who writes, "Regular exercise increases the blood supply to the brain, thus giving it a greater oxygen and energy supply -- for mental abilities. In addition, chemicals secreted by the brain during and after exercise enable it to deal better with stress and anxiety."

Imagine! Kids -- like adults -- think and feel and learn better after a break!

The U.S. government's own education and health experts point out the benefits of recess. "Promoting Better Health for Young People Through Physical Activity and Sports, A Report to the President From the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Secretary of Education" calls for "daily recess periods for elementary school students, featuring time for unstructured supervised play" as a way to promote better health among our nation's youth.

According to the 2000 report, "Our nation's young people are, in large measure, inactive, unfit, and increasingly overweight. In the long run, this physical inactivity threatens to reverse the decades-long progress we have made in reducing death from cardiovascular diseases and to devastate our national health care budget. In the short run, physical inactivity has contributed to an unprecedented epidemic of childhood obesity that is currently plaguing the United States. The percentage of young people who are overweight has doubled since 1980."

Raise your hand if you believe that "inactive, unfit, and overweight" kids are better learners!

Even sociologists have weighed in on the issue, pointing out that, for many kids, school is the only opportunity they have for active play. Kids with working parents or those who live in unsafe neighborhoods, in particular, are often not able to play outside after school. Others, mesmerized by television or computer games and out of sight of busy parents, are simply unmotivated.

That our kids need active playtime is clear. I bet even those policymakers busily eliminating recess from the school day believe in its benefits "in an ideal world." Their question is: How do we find the time? As usual, I have a suggestion!

According to The American Association for the Child's Right to Play:

  • "Recess is a contributing factor for cultural exchange." [Recess should allow us to save, say, two minutes of a classroom lesson on multicultural education.]
  • "Unstructured play gives the child an opportunity to exercise a sense of wonder, which leads to exploration, which leads to creativity" [saving one minute of an art activity].
  • "Physical activity is essential for the healthy growth and development of children" [worth five minutes of a health lesson].
  • "Traditional recess activities encourage children to take turns, negotiate or modify rules, and interact cooperatively" [better than a three-minute discussion of classroom rules].
  • "Students who get a break are much less fidgety in the classroom" [saving ten minutes otherwise spent on classroom discipline].
  • "Recess can serve as an outlet for reducing or lowering the child's anxiety" [in the current climate, worth at least two minutes of a discussion of current events].
  • "Recess gives the classroom teacher an opportunity to assess the child's social skills" [saving two minutes of peer-relations counseling].
  • "Recess allows children to interact with peers, and to watch and learn from other children" [for better than three minutes of a cooperative-learning activity].
  • Recess affords an avenue for the child's natural urge for vigorous physical play" [saving two minutes of lecturing on proper classroom behavior].

The time saved by just those few benefits of recess is (oddly enough!) exactly the same amount of time required for two 15-minute recesses a day!

I could mention several additional benefits -- benefits that save even more precious class time -- but my eyes are crossed, my body is aching, and my brain is mush. First, I need a coffee break!

About the author:

Linda Starr, a former teacher and the mother of four children, has been an education writer for nearly two decades. Read More StarrPoints here.

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Updated 04/15/2013