The Recess Disconnect

Two things you should know prior to reading this post: 1) I am writing through the lens of both a parent and a secondary educator (meaning I’m far from being an expert), and 2) my child has two amazing Kindergarten teachers. They are passionate and kind, they ensure my son loves school, and I can tell they care deeply about him. This is what every parent wants for their children. With these two admissions, I will proceed. I recently received two unsettling emails from my son’s teachers.

The first email was expected, but still a bit disappointing, as we all want to believe our children are little well-behaved geniuses. So, the hard truth is a bit difficult to swallow. According to the email, my son struggles at times to pay attention, he is easily distracted by his peers, and when he becomes unengaged he is often stubborn and unwilling to reengage, especially when the task is a difficult one. Lack of focus and inability to pay attention sometimes is exactly what I would expect of a five-year-old. He is still learning to be a student, his attention-span is growing, he loves to play with his friends, and he tends to shift focus from more difficult endeavors to easier ones. As far as the stubborn element, well, he is my son. I’ve learned these characteristics are fairly common among the Kindergarten-set, as evidenced by the discussions I’ve had at birthday parties with other parents. Also, in that same email, my son’s teachers had plenty of praise for him. He is helpful, kind, and a good friend, all awesome qualities, so I wasn’t particularly concerned.

The unsettling part came when I received the next email — about recess. In it, my son’s teachers outlined the new plan. After the winter break, they would be cutting lunch recess from 45 minutes to 30 minutes (which includes time to eat). The rationale for this decision was that per district recommendations, the first half of the year, Kindergartners are allotted an extra 15 minutes at lunch to meet their social-emotional needs, but that the time should be cut during the second half of the year. The reasoning for the cut was not explained, nor the implication that Kindergartners somehow no longer need the social-emotional support of a longer recess after only four months of school. The email went on to describe the practice they’d been doing as a class to prepare for the change. They’d implemented a “quiet lunch” in which the kids must be silent during the first 5 to 10 minutes, in order to focus on eating. They could then socialize for the remaining 5 minutes of lunch and 15 minutes of recess.

I’d also recently had some discussion with area elementary teachers about this topic. Along with being a parent and an educator, I am also a teacher leader. I recently took on the role of facilitator for the Washington Education Association’s National Board Teacher Leadership Academy. NBCTs in my region sign up and we work together to develop teacher leadership plans. Through our discussions I have learned a great deal about elementary school recess and have discovered that not all schools are implementing recess in the same ways. Anecdotally speaking, schools with fewer behavior issues have more recess, while schools with more behavior problems, have fewer minutes of recess.

This knowledge in combination with the change in my own child’s recess, got me thinking about the rationale for the cut in recess time. Many of us parents received similar reports from the teachers about inattention and disengagement. This discovery led to more discussion of the consequences for such behavior, which often meant removal of free-time and/or sitting with head down while the other students participated in an activity. It appears to me there is a logical disconnect. Students are losing social-time for poor behavior, but schools with statistically fewer discipline issues have more social-time. To me, that would suggest that increased social-time leads to more positive behaviors. This thought process warranted a bit of research.

I found several studies and articles supporting my hypothesis that increased recess decreases behavior issues in the classroom. One study in particular, by Theresa Phillippo at Hamline University, was a comprehensive overview of the impact of recess on behavior in Kindergarten. This researcher found “evidence that students are able to display more self-control when given more opportunities for movement during the day. Students were also more successful at showing soft skills such as cooperation, problem-solving, negotiation, compromising, and forming new friendships.” The author asserts that “a positive connection was found indicating that recess has a positive effect on classroom behavior. Results indicate that the long-term effects of providing recess may outweigh the short-term effects or reducing recess.”

I am not an expert, and an afternoon of research into recess does not qualify me to give advice to my son’s two amazing Kindergarten teachers. I do believe, though, that our schools need to think more deeply about their strict focus on seat-time and learning, especially in Kindergarten. Free play has such a positive impact on a child’s ability to connect and bond with others, problem-solve, be self-motivated, and is just plain good to get the wiggles out. These qualities and abilities are essential to being ready to learn.

I plan on visiting my school board and giving them my opinion about district policy concerning recess in Kindergarten. I will include the research I did today, but I’d love some additional resources to support my assertion that we should be adding minutes, not subtracting them from recess and that removal of free time is not an effective consequence for misbehavior, if anything it only makes the problem worse. Do you have anything to add? Let me know in the comments below. I can definitely use the help.

20 thoughts on “The Recess Disconnect

  1. Janet Becker

    I’ve always found value in letting them get their “wiggles” out. Those wiggles are going to come out soon or later! Playground wiggling is so much more fun than trying to hold the wiggles in while sitting in a classroom!

    1. Mandy

      Thanks for joining the conversation, Janet. My son definitely needs his play time and he is a calm kid. I’m sure kids with more energy than him need it even more.

  2. Drew Meuer

    Mandy,

    Thanks for your thoughtful article and comments. I am a huge proponent of the importance of play and recess in the life of kids. As a parent of a child in the same immersion class, former youth development professional and Power of Play trainer I share the concern! Today (January 23, 2018) I visited lunch recess to play and timed the outdoor recess/play time our kids had… it clocked in at about 10 minutes from arriving on the playground to the whistle.

    Admittedly, this is one experience but it would seem that this will be the norm going forward and it does not seem like nearly enough time for an afternoon dose of healthy play! I also learned there is a longer (25 minute) morning recess at 9:30, but I haven’t yet had the opportunity to participate in that play time.

    From 2006 – 2009 I had the great privilege of working for a 501(c)3 non-profit organization in the Bay Area called Playworks (playworks.org). The mission of this organization is to help kids stay active and build social and emotional skills through play at recess and throughout the school day. A culture of play promotes a host of benefits including: physical activity, social connectedness, emotional development, conflict resolution, better behavior in the classroom and improved academic outcomes. Studies on the effects of play can be found here: https://www.playworks.org/impact/studies-on-play/

    I’ve spent many, many hours on playgrounds and have seen first hands the positive effects that a daily, structured opportunity for play has on school climate and meeting the physical, social and emotional needs for students.

    I’d love to join you in a conversation with the school board regarding recess policy for Kindergarten. This is an important issue that has consequences for all kids. – Drew Meuer

    1. Mandy

      Let’s chat, Drew. I’d love more support in the conversation and it sounds like you have a great deal of knowledge and experience.

  3. Mark

    Also a secondary teacher here, but I’ve done some reading about the correlation between movement, cognitive development, and mental health. There are countless examples (I’m sure you found many) of schools where students’ academic performance increased when more, rather than less, unstructured play/physical time was incorporated into their schedule. I can’t cite my sources off hand, but I remember reading also that one of the most successful interventions for older/secondary students who struggle with math was to schedule PE immediately before math… there is little dispute of the brain body connection and the chemical changes to the brain that movement and exercise can produce.

    1. Mandy

      Thank you so much for adding to the conversation. I love that intervention idea. I am going to search for that article and read it. In years past, when my students struggled to stay attentive, we would take a quick walk. That always seemed to get them back on track.

  4. Lyon Terry

    This is such an important topic. A few years ago we discovered in Seattle that schools with lower test score outcomes had 15-45 minutes less recess time than schools with higher test score outcomes. Again, this was mostly anecdotal, but it was teachers in a room talking from most of the schools. Thus we bargained a guarantee of at least 30 minutes of recess for every K-5 student in the district.

    In my classroom we don’t call our GoNoodle.com time, recess time, P.E. or music time “Brain Breaks.” We call them “Brain Boosters.” Brains need it.

    Plus, I highly recommend before any tests, 3-10 minutes of high activity movement. I run myself students through obstacle courses, laughing moves, and lots of jumping around right before any test.

    1. Mandy Manning Post author

      Thanks, Lyon! Thanks for including the data. I’m curious to see of we have the same type of data in my district. Your elementary expertise is much appreciated.

  5. Josh

    Even more fun when the substitute teachers response to wiggles is to take rhe childs recess away…..

  6. Amy Ulrich

    For those in WA and on Facebook, please join the group “Lunch and Recess Matters.” For those who are PTA members, please get involved at any level possible to advocate for both lunch and recess time. This is an upcoming WSPTA legislative issue and resolution. National PTA Resolution: https://www.pta.org/home/advocacy/pta's-positions/Individual-PTA-Resolutions/Resolution-on-School-Recess
    American Academy of Pediatrics: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/131/1/183
    SHAPE America: https://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/physicalactivity/pdf/2016_12_16_schoolrecessstrategies_508.pdf
    CDC: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/rr/rr6005.pdf
    NEA: http://healthyfutures.nea.org/get-informed/student-physical-health/physical-activity-and-active-living/
    CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/health_and_academics/pdf/pa-pe_paper.pdf
    CDC: CDC’s Health and Academics, “The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance” https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/health_and_academics/pdf/health-academic-achievement.pdf
    Teaching With the Brain in Mind, 2nd Edition, Chapter 4 “Movement and Learning.” http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/104013/chapters/Movement-and-Learning.aspx
    Many others:
    US Play Coalition, “A Research-Based Case For Recess,” http://www.allianceforchildhood.org/sites/allianceforchildhood.org/files/file/Recess_online.pdf
    http://www.k12.wa.us/ChildNutrition/SchoolWellness/SchoolWellnessManual.pdf (page 75)
    https://www.simplemost.com/recess-now-mandatory-one-state-thanks-new-law/
    https://www.edutopia.org/blog/longer-recess-stronger-child-development-angela-hanscom
    http://kuow.org/post/seattle-teachers-want-least-45-minutes-recess
    http://kuow.org/post/withholding-recess-banned-10-states-its-common-seattle
    https://www.mccleary.wednet.edu/cms/lib/WA01919434/Centricity/Domain/18/Procedure%20%20Nutrition%20Health%20and%20Physical%20Fitness-6700P.pdf (McCleary, WA; page 7)
    https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/09/skills-children-need-work-future-play-lego
    http://tv.clemson.edu/say_yes_to_recess/
    **Please connect with me! I would love to work together on this! Thank you for discussing recess!

    1. Carolyn

      You are my hero Amy! I have seen such great benefit to have a lot of movement through the learning process. Keep on advocating!

      1. Mandy Manning Post author

        Carolyn, thanks for engaging in the conversation about recess. Movement is so important.

  7. Tina

    You might also consider looking through the research at the DEY website- Defending the Early Years. I teach kindergarten and in my experience, students learn quicker, retain new learning longer and apply it more deeply to their prior learning when they are engaged in play-based learning in the classroom. Research has shown physical movement and play are two of the most effective instructional practices an educator can use with young children. My students have a total of 60 minutes of outdoor recess every day (3 recesses), and some days we go outside the class just to walk around the building and review our lessons. Best thing I ever did in my classroom was get rid of all my chairs.

    1. Mandy Manning Post author

      I remember having 60 minutes of recess when I was a child. Thanks so much for being a leader in this endeavor! I appreciate your suggestions for further research.

  8. Jamie Sullivan

    Thank you for addressing this, Amy. My daughter attends a Title 1 school and recess was recently shortened as a response to fights and misbehavior during unstructured time at lunch and on the playground. It seems that Title 1 schools have such a focus on closing the achievement gap in reading and math that enrichment and physical exercise get cut. I’d like to see if cutting recess has the intended effect of lowered infractions. If not, I hope it is reinstated.

    1. Mandy Manning Post author

      Jamie, thank you so much for reading my post and joining in the conversation. I would also like to see the impact of shortening recess on infractions. According to what I have discovered, the opposite is generally true. I wonder if the answer is increasing free-play in the lower grades in order to help kids connect with one another and the adults in their school – connections are what will really impact infractions. That’s my two-cents, anyway.

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