If we want students to learn to high standards, we need them in the classroom, not the playground. (Karen Clarke, a Washington state school principal, Associated Press, 2005)
Ms. Clarke, the Tacoma, Washington principal, is not alone. Principals across the United States are making the decision to cut back on or eliminate recess. Educators for over a decade have been discussing the declining opportunity for recess in schools. Yet, recess continues to be threatened nationwide. This decline in recess has been attributed to many reasons, but mostly to the rise of state standards— and now national standards. One consequence of the accountability movement has been the elimination or reduction of everything which does not appear on a state test.
While there are many advocates for recess and many reasons to include recess, from children's physical activity to developing coordination to social, cognitive and emotional benefits for recess and outdoor play, there still seems to be the idea that eliminating recess is an easy answer to raising test scores. (Jarrett, et al. 1998; Sutterby & Frost, 2002; Pellegrini, 2005)
My own children, ages 8 and 13, have not had recess since kindergarten. The district we live in has few school playgrounds and many school officials and teachers who frown on recess, especially for the tested grades of third, fourth and fifth. For these children school is a daily grind of class after class without any break other than lunch and then hours of homework after school.
Part of this obsession with keeping children occupied comes from the theory of time on task. Time on task theory states that the longer you spend on an activity, for example, studying French vocabulary words, the more you are going to learn. If I learn 10 words in 30 minutes, in 60 minutes I should learn twice as much. If children learn from one worksheet, then two must be even better. It seems logical to all of us, and there is obvious evidence that increased time on a task does improve performance. However, what this theory does not account for is the diminishing returns that come from extending performance without a break. Research continues to demonstrate that beyond a certain point extended time on a task no longer improves productivity. (Cummins, 2000)
Every good football coach knows that at a certain point extra practice does not lead to better play and can lead to injuries. Break times are mandated by federal law for workers, military commanders know that when soldiers have been on duty for too long they begin to make mistakes and even prisoners are required to have daily breaks.
What about the children?
As schools have continued to cut recess in order to raise test scores, advocates have begun to push back. Many organizations are advocating for recess and one area they have begun to approach is legislating recess through state laws. This summer Texas Governor Rick Perry signed into law a physical education bill that among other things stated, The local school health advisory council shall consider and make policy recommendations to the district concerning the importance of daily recess for elementary school students. The council must consider research regarding unstructured and undirected play, academic and social development, and the health benefits of daily recess in making the recommendations. The bill falls far short of mandating recess, and the legislative aid who helped me locate the bill noted that if the law mandated recess it would certainly have failed.
In that right, Texas is not much different than the rest of the states. Texas, which led the way in developing standardized testing and accountability, is now among the leaders in requiring recess. According to Action for Healthy Kids(2002), only two states have laws requiring recess. Texas is a leader in many ways, one of which is in the number of obese children and adults it currently has five of the worst 15 cities in ratings of health and obesity. I suspect part of that is due to our children spending so much time in the classroom and so little time out of doors. I also believe this will begin to change in the next few years as parents continue to push back against standardized testing and some of the problems associated with it. It will also continue to be an issue as long as obesity continues to worsen in the United States.
Well, when we don't have recess, I feel like screaming. When we do have recess, I do scream. (Child comment from Jarrett & Maxwell)
I think it is interesting that we have finally come to the point that we have to legislate recess. Few of us adults grew up in an era without recess, and for us it is hard to imagine a world where it does not exist. Yet our children are growing up in just such a world, one where the opportunity to play with friends, blow off steam and just plain run around is only to be found in the history books.
Recess and free play continue to be one of the best ways for children to be physically active. Children are more active outdoors during free play, and they are even more active than during physical education. (Sutterby, Brown & Thornton, 2004)
Physically active children are healthy children, and healthy children make better learners. So if we want to make sure our children grow up educated, we also need to make sure they have the opportunities to have daily recess periods—even if we have to make it a law.
Recess is a lot more than just a free break for kids to play after lunch period. That free, unstructured play time allows kids to exercise and helps them focus better when they are in class. Now a school in Texas says it took a risk by giving students four recess periods a day, but the risk has paid off beautifully.