Last year in Seattle public schools, students from low-income families won an equal right to play, thanks to a fierce coalition of Seattle teachers and parents who set up an unbeatable offense to return recess to the school day.
Similar efforts are happening across the U.S., as educators and parents take note of how the No Child Left Behind (NCLB)-era of high-stakes, high-stress testing altered their children’s school day, lengthening the hours that students stay in their seats and squeezing the minutes they swing across playgrounds. It’s time, educators and parents say, for the school day to return to a healthier state of play.
In recent years, mandatory-recess legislation has been introduced in several states, including Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. Meanwhile, one Texas school has jacked up its daily allotment of recess to four times a day. Recess supporters point to the health benefits of exercise and movement, the way that physical activity supports cognitive development, plus the critical social and emotional learning that takes place when children have unstructured, free time to play.
“It’s been alarming to see the way that NCLB led to less recess. Recess has cognitive, emotional, social benefits, and lots of research to support it,” says Terri Drain, a National Board Certified physical education teacher in Alameda County, Calif., and a member of the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE) board of directors. “I would call it a crime, actually, to deny physical activity to kids…We’re just not designed to sit still.”
Last year, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law, bringing a welcome focus on local- and state-designed standards. “It’s a great time to spark conversations around what a well-rounded child looks like. It’s not one who sits and takes tests all day,” says Collin Brooks, a National Board Certified physical education teacher from Bend, Ore., and the president of Oregon SHAPE. (To find out how you can get involved in those conversations in your community, visit getESSAright.org.)
At Brooks’ school, younger students get three recesses a day, while older ones get two. But not all kids are so lucky. In Florida this year, parents complained to state legislators that some schools had zero. (Their mandatory recess bill passed almost unanimously in the Florida House, but stalled in the state Senate.) Overall, in 2014, about two out of 10 U.S. elementary schools had no daily recess, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Generally, middle and high schools have even less.
Making matters worse in Seattle—where there was no district-level policy on recess—whether students got a healthy break in their day often depended on whether they went to school in a wealthy community, notes Michael Tamayo, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher and a member of the Seattle Education Association bargaining team. In fact, a 2014 National Public Radio investigation of recess in Seattle found stark divisions between wealthier, predominantly White schools and those serving mainly students of color and low-income families. While the more privileged group would get upwards of 45 minutes of recess a day, low-income, Black students typically had no more than 15 minutes of unstructured play. Sometimes, they had none.
“Parents started the conversation, via social media, about equity in recess. They were the real catalysts, first engaging with individual schools,” Tamayo says. But when the union surveyed its members in 2015, as a precursor to contract negotiations, they found equal concern among Seattle educators. “The one question that got everybody was, ‘Do you think your students get enough unstructured time in the day?’ And everybody said ‘no’,” explains Tamayo.
The Value of Playtime
What Seattle parents and educators understood intuitively is this: Play is not a break from learning. Play is learning. Fred Rogers, aka Mister Rogers, called play “the work of childhood.”
What happens on the playground as kids negotiate games and navigate their world gets to the heart of social and emotional learning, another casualty of the NCLB era. “They need to be able to make up their own rules, to learn to get along with each other, to solve problems—and they don’t do that at an organized soccer practice,” points out Drain. In fact, one study found that 6-year-olds who engage more in unstructured play are better decision makers, and more capable of social relationships than their more structured counterparts.
“If we’re really walking the talk about 21st century skills, creativity is one of them, and it goes hand-in-hand with play,” says Drain. “Think about those high-tech companies, like Google, and how they provide their employees with opportunities for play. They know it’s how to get the best productivity out of them.”
It’s not just Silicon Valley that understands the importance of downtime. The U.S. could learn a valuable lesson from other nations, like Finland, that place a high premium on academic breaks. In Finland, renowned for its education excellence, teachers and students typically break for 15 minutes every hour. Similarly, in much of East Asia, students receive a 10- minute break after every 40 to 45 minutes of instruction.
In the early 1990s, University of Minnesota’s Anthony Pellegrini, the wise elder of recess research, proved the wisdom of brain breaks. By measuring students’ attention before and after recess, he found students were significantly more attentive to schoolwork after the four-square balls were stashed. He also found that the more delayed the break—in other words, the longer a lesson dragged on—the more students’ minds began to wander.
“In a perfect world, students would be getting out of the seats, getting physically active, and increasing their heart rate, every 20 minutes,” says Brooks, the National Board Certified physical education teacher.
Meanwhile, even as headlines acclaim the relationship between exercise and brain function in aging adults, an expanding body of research shows that children get the same benefits. While one study showed students score better on math tests if they go for a walk first, another found that the areas of the brain devoted to learning are bigger in kids who exercise more. In 2014, a University of Illinois study invited 100 children to participate in an activity-based, after-school program, while 100 other students kept to their usual routine of TV and PlayStations. One year later, the well-exercised children showed more improvement in cognitive scores.
And then, there are the physical health benefits to consider, too. In 2012, more than a third of U.S. children and adolescents were obese, and every one of them faces increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, bone and joint problems, and social and psychological issues. “That alone should encourage schools and school districts to incorporate more physical activity during the day,” says Brooks.
Today’s kids aren’t moving when they’re at home. Concerns about neighborhood safety, coupled with the ever-growing popularity of video games means a whole lot of kids sitting around for a whole lot of hours. “When kids sit in front of a screen for three, four, six hours a day, you can figure out what’s being taken out of their day—it’s play and physical activity,” says Drain.
Playtime in Seattle
So what did Seattle educators and parents do to bring back recess for all young children? They organized! In late 2014, parents, students, and teachers first rallied for recess at a school board meeting. Petitions were signed by the thousands. Then, during the summer of 2015, equitable recess became a driving issue in SEA’s contract negotiations with Seattle Public Schools.
With so much community pressure on the district to even the playing field and invest in children’s minds and bodies, recess turned out to be an easier issue to settle, says Tamayo. “There was no back and forth on our proposal, it was just ‘we accept this,’” recalls Tamayo. Specifically, the new contract ensures each of Seattle’s elementary students has the opportunity for at least 30 minutes a day of unstructured recess—“no matter your school, your income level, or your background,” says Tamayo.
How those 30 minutes are allocated is up to the classroom teacher. And the contract doesn’t bar educators from using recess for academic or disciplinary reasons. If teachers want to use that time to tutor a student, or do some problem-solving around discipline, they can. “There are only so many minutes in the day to develop those relationships,” says Tamayo, adding, “we see it not so much as an opportunity for punishment, but for relationship-building.” (In 2012, the practice of withholding recess to punish students was condemned by the American Academy of Pediatrics. It also has been forbidden by law in at least 11 states.)
At Tamayo’s school, students now enjoy a 15-minute break before lunch, and another after lunch. His school also has a new activities coordinator, who organizes games like tetherball or kickball. Having options is good for kids, says Brooks. His school also has a kickball league that competes during recess, plus a jogging club, and “lots of kids who create their own games.”
As recess returns, schools should make sure to have adequate physical equipment, “stimulating stuff,” says Drain. Things like rope ladders or climbing rocks will get students developing skills and moving competently in different environments, she says.
At the same time, educators also need to equip students to resolve playground spats, and model inclusive behaviors. “You need to establish a really positive school culture where students understand inclusion, that we play with everybody, and where they’ve learned the skills to resolve conflict,” says Drain.
Most of all, classroom teachers shouldn’t consider recess to be time lost for instruction, says Brooks. “Don’t look at it as taking something away, but as giving something to our students, and increasing the likelihood they’ll be successful in the classroom.”
What’s hot on the playground?
Recess before lunch: For generations, it’s been eat first, play later. But schools that have turned it around report students are eating more fruits and vegetables, wasting less food, and behaving better on the playground.
Four Square: A very informal, unscientific survey of NEA members indicates that this decades-old game is still a favorite on the blacktop. And all you need to play is one bouncy ball.
Dodgeball: While the demon dodgeball was yanked from schoolyards years ago, gaga pits are downright trendy these days. Inside them, students play a modified, not-so-dangerous dodging game.