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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. What might their responses tell you about the importance of recess at your school? Included: Tips for a safe and productive recess period.

kids running

"I believe quite strongly that there is great value in play. Play is learning lessons that often can't be learned anyplace else. I believe that taking away time to play will not raise test scores. It seems that with all the rush to pass standardized tests, children have less and less time to play and enjoy it," teacher Marlie Griffin tells Education World. In Griffin's school, Kent Prairie Elementary in Arlington, Washington, a developmental approach to recess was put into place to give students structure and help them to play constructively. The goal was to give the students some skills in play that they seemed to lack. "We had problems with kids who didn't know how to play with one another and kids who got hurt because they are impulsive and sometimes don't act responsibly," Griffin tells Education World. "We worked on this last year. We made recess fun. Recess had a clublike atmosphere, and the kids really seemed to enjoy it. The developmental approach worked fairly well for children who have trouble in less-structured situations and those with inadequate social skills." Kent Prairie provides three recesses per day in kindergarten through second grade. Third- through fifth-grade classes have two. Para-educators supervise the recesses, which are held on two playgrounds. Older students and younger students may mingle during the recess periods.


According to Susan Meyer, principal of Meads Mill Middle School, older students also need time for relaxation and "play." "Middle school kids need to have unwinding and reflecting time just as adults do," Meyer tells Education World. "They can and do discuss stuff that went on in class too!" Sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students at Meyer's Northville, Michigan, school enjoy a recess as part of their lunch period. The students have separate lunch periods, according to grade level, followed by a 20-minute break for recess. Recess takes place in the gym or outside, explains Meyer. "Students can use foosball machines, play Ping-Pong, sit and talk, or play basketball in the gym. They may play volleyball and tether ball. Outside, we allow them to play basketball, soccer, wall ball, or football. They may run or relax and chat -- whatever -- as long as the game is safe and they are in sight of the monitor." During recess, free use of the restrooms and a pay phone is permitted -- as long as the privilege isn't abused. Students may also see teachers, use the library and computers, do make-up work, attend study sessions, and enjoy "lunch bunch" groups with staff. The principal and the assistant principal are responsible for supervising recess. They have help from parent volunteers through a program run by the school PTSA. Parents at Lunch (PAL) gives the adults a chance to network too. "The school is the students' domain. Parents are always welcome, but many don't know how to become involved in the school. This is a great way to meet both the students' needs and the parents'," Meyer states. Meyer has several reasons for suggesting that middle school students need a recess.

  • Middle school kids are learning to socialize as adolescents. They need to try out various roles, and school is a safe environment.
  • They need to control their unstructured time to use it well.
  • They are growing at different rates and are at various levels of development physically, mentally, and emotionally. They need to be able to try out their skills and their muscles and use their energy.
  • The students get to relate to administrators in informal settings. Says Meyer, "It is amazing what I can find out about a kid [during recess time], or I can connect with kids I wouldn't ordinarily see. Lots of teaching goes on during this time, and I learn too!"


"Many students enjoy sitting back on the bleachers or outside, just relaxing for a few minutes," says teaching assistant Brigid Heckman. "This world is so hurried up, go, go, go all the time, that we need to teach our children to stop and take time to smell the roses, even in the structured environment that school offers." Heckman remembers what spurred her to work with a superintendent last year and organize a program of community volunteers to assist with giving students a recess. With one aide watching the entire group of students, all the children had to stay in their seats in the lunchroom until the teachers arrived to retrieve their classes. The cafeteria of Greenwood Central School in Greenwood, New York, was so noisy that students were not able to eat comfortably. "I coordinated the volunteers," explains Heckman. "At the end of the school year last year, we could get volunteers probably three out of the five lunch days for recess. We generally had two volunteers per recess session." The school no longer needs volunteers because the staff has found ways to make more-efficient use of the teacher aides' time. Now every class has a 15-minute recess after lunch, even high school students. "Everyone needs unstructured time during the course of a day -- even in school! For children, recess is important; it helps kids develop social and physical skills, if in a supervised environment," says Heckman. "Recess helps kids blow off steam and take a breather. Educators need to know that high test scores are important, but so is a small amount of unstructured playtime, especially to a 7-year-old!"

Tips for a Successful Recess

Susan Meyer offers tips to help ensure a safe and productive recess period in the middle grades.

  • To avoid injuries, establish specific rules and make students aware of the levels of play allowed.
  • Invite parents to help supervise the recess period.
  • Cut back any bushes or shrubs on school property.
  • Restrict the play area to observable places.
  • Keep administrators moving so kids never know where they will turn up next.
  • Secure paid teacher help if it is possible.


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