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662: Recess

Look up the research on recess – as in times of unstructured, often outdoor, play for kids, and it’s all pretty darn clear. Recess helps improve test scores. Recess helps improve physical fitness. Recess creates kids with better problem solving skills, better social skills, more independence, and a whole host of other benefits.

To quote a teacher who moved from the United States to Finland and wrote an article in the Atlantic about their experience with recess:

The work of Anthony Pellegrini—author of Recess: Its Role in Education and Development and emeritus professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota—who has praised [the approach of frequent breaks in instruction]. In East Asia—where most primary schools give their students a 10-minute break after 40 minutes or so of classroom instruction—Pellegrini observed the same phenomenon that I had witnessed at my Finnish school. After these shorter recesses, students appeared to be more attentive in the classroom. Not satisfied with anecdotal evidence alone, Pellegrini and his colleagues ran a series of experiments at a public elementary school to explore the relationship between recess timing and attentiveness in the classroom. In every one of the experiments, students were more attentive after a break than before a break. They also found that the children were less attentive when the timing of the break was delayed—or in other words, when the lesson dragged on.

What’s most important is not where kids take breaks but how much freedom we give them from their structured work. When break times are teacher-directed, Pellegrini found, the recess loses its value. It’s free-play that gives students the opportunity to develop social competence. During these times, they not only rest and recharge—they also learn to cooperate, communicate, and compromise, all skills they need to succeed academically as well as in life.

So – with so much research that is so clear — not to mention just about every educational association, health focused group, and child psychologist agreeing that unstructured time is important – why is there even a question?

Frankly, because time is a limited resource.

As a report out of the UK outlines, quote:

“One of the greatest weaknesses in secondary schools was the very short amount of time allowed for the lunchtime break. This meant that pupils had to be hurried through the canteen at great speed, with no opportunity for them to develop their social skills,” says the report, Food in Schools: Encouraging Healthier Eating.

And a New York Times article from 1998 explains why the Atlanta, Georgia, US school district cut out recess, saying, quote:

Dr. Canada, the Atlanta schools superintendent, maintains that many children today, especially those from impoverished backgrounds, are ”crying out for more structure, not less.” He said the need for exercise is being met since elementary students are required to take physical education. Rather than give children 30 minutes to while away time as they please, he said, it makes more sense to teach them a skill, like dancing or gymnastics. Acknowledging that many parents are not happy with the lack of recess, Dr. Canada said he was willing to take some heat. ”Many parents still don’t quite get it,” he said. ”They’ll ask, ‘So when are we getting a new playground?’ And I’ll say, ‘There’s not going to be a new playground.’ ”

That article also goes on to explain, quote:

”There are a lot of things that impinge on our time these days,” said Darwin Johnson, the superintendent of elementary schools in Evanston and Skokie on the North Shore of Chicago, who faced a firestorm of criticism when he briefly eliminated recess last fall, before reinstating it. ”We’re supposed to teach bike safety, personal safety, drug education, ‘stranger-danger,’ and then we have art, music and drama, starting in kindergarten.” Mr. Johnson added, in a voice weary with exasperation, ”When I ask parents what we should cut out they think I’m being a smart aleck.” To be sure, there are some parents who believe recess is a waste of time, or a frightening experience for children who are vulnerable to being bullied.

And the US and UK aren’t the only counties with this debate. Data put together by the University of Wisconsin highlights that Italy has an average of just 10 minutes per day, and the Bahamas just 15 minutes.