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The Importance of Recess
Date: October 03 2011

by Marijke Vroomen Durning 

The bell rings and, within moments, a flood of children is pouring into the schoolyard. It’s recess! It’s time to play, to walk, to run. It’s time to think of anything but academics. It’s time to get the ants out of your pants. This is a scenario repeated every day, every year, in schools across North America, but not in every school. Some schools have eliminated recess. Some other schools have kept recess in theory, but they control it very strictly for fear of lawsuits.

It may seem simple to those who made the decisions to limit or eliminate recess. After all, it’s just a few minutes a day of play – and school is serious, where learning must be done. There is no time – or need – for play, right? As it happens, no, that’s not right. Children who don’t have the opportunity for free play during the school day are losing out on a lot more than fresh air. They’re losing out on learning opportunities that are hard to get anywhere else.

Breaks – An Essential Part of the Workday

Adults get recess all the time, except they call them breaks. The Federal Fair Labor Standards Act in the United States mandates that workers are entitled to a break for every 2.5 hours they work. These breaks can be used to relax, read, eat, or walk around, generally doing anything non-work related so the workers can get back to their tasks with a fresh mind. Yet, despite there being mandated breaks for adults, in some schools, children are expected to sit through hours of instruction and learning without a similar type of respite.

According to the American Association of the Child’s Right to Play, nearly 40% of the 16,000 school districts have either taken away recess completely, shortened it, or are in the process of considering eliminating it. Many of the public schools in Chicago eliminated recess years ago to accommodate the teachers’ wishes to tack their lunch on at the end of the day, thereby shortening it. Now, in 2011, there is a big push to regain recess, but it is meeting a lot of resistance from the teachers who have become used to their workday the way it is. This is clearly an example of the children’s needs taking second place to the people who are supposed to be helping them in the first place.

Play IS Work

It could be argued that recess isn’t just for fun, but that it is an extension of the work and learning at school. Many childhood and education experts, including Maria Montessori, the founder of the Montessori method of learning, say that “play is the work of children.” Their toys should be considered their work tools, as should their mind and body. If this is the case, then recess isn’t an extra that can be removed from the school day – it is a part of it.

Releasing Energy

Researchers are finding that children, especially boys, are not meant to sit still for extended periods. In fact, there is a whole new school of thought about how boys should be taught differently from girls, with many opportunities to be physical and use their bodies.

By providing recess, children can release pent up energy or “turn off” their academic mind for 20 minutes or so. As a result, the teachers can often expect to see children return from recess refreshed and hopefully ready to learn more.

Physical Activity

Physically, North American children need recess, as well as other forms of exercise. According to the Centers of Disease Control (CDC), approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged from two to 19 years old are obese, which is heavier than merely overweight. More and more of these children are beginning to experience typically adult-onset illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. Their bodies cannot handle the excess weight and the issues that accompany it.

Psychological Benefits

Psychologically, some children may only have recess for the opportunity for free, undirected play. Their days may be so full of scheduled activities that the one time they can direct their own play is during their breaks at school. Recess allows children to interact with their peers outside of adult influence. They may choose to play an imaginary game and negotiate how it will be played. They might choose a game with rules, but they must deal with disputes and problems on their own, without adult intervention. Throughout this type of play, the children are navigating their way through social interactions, learning what is appropriate and what is not.

It can be argued that the children don’t need recess if the only goal is to give them time to move about. They may have physical education classes or take part in organized sports outside of school. But in these cases, play is restricted, bound by the rules and expectations of the play time, area, and supervising adults. In soccer, for example, adults make up the teams, monitor the play, and mete out consequences of breaking the rules. In phys ed classes, the teacher is in control over what the students will do, how they’ll move, and when. In addition, the children aren’t in a position where they can pull out if they don’t enjoy the activities. They are in a closed setting, so to speak. And, we can’t forget, just as recess may be getting the cut, so are phys ed classes, in order to increase academic exposure to the students.

How Can We Help Our Children?

Even people who are not parents end up benefitting from healthy, happy children in society. Our children grow up to become the workers of the future, with the necessary skills. But it takes more than technical skill and knowledge to be a good worker or leader. It takes imagination, problem solving, cooperation and so much more. These are all skills that can’t be taught in a classroom. These must be learned through interacting with others, without input from outside sources. So, we must support the need for recess. We must stop thinking about recess as a waste of time, but rather, as a time when children are doing what they do best: being kids.