Is school recess a privilege students earn or a foundation they need?

APS students head out to recess. (Photo Kent Johnson/AJC)

Is recess a privilege that can be taken away or a foundation of learning that ought to be protected?

That seems to be the dividing line in the debate over whether Atlanta Public Schools should rescind its policy that allows the break to be withheld for disciplinary or academic reasons. The policy is under review by the APS school board.

The topic has generated many comments on the AJC Get Schooled Facebook page, the majority contending that recess is critical to academic success and the self-regulation of behavior. Commenters cite the research that overwhelmingly shows a link between children’s physical activity and improve concentration and focus.

So, why would any educator argue in favor of withholding recess for misbehaving or errant students?

I think the stance comes from the growing concern among teachers that there’s little left in their toolboxes to address student misbehavior. I also think teachers believe they are increasingly under a microscope in how and why they discipline kids, and that principals are all too willing to throw them under bus, back it up and trample them again, if parents complain.

Among the comments on the AJC Get Schooled Facebook page reflecting that sentiment: “No accountability for student actions. Why should they do any work or behave? When they know it doesn’t matter ‘I have no consequences’. They won’t be disciplined or fail because the administration/board doesn’t want to deal with the problem.”

In the 2009 survey “The State of Play” by Gallup for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, nearly two-thirds of principals reported taking away recess as punishment for behavior problems or not finishing work.

Recess — sometimes now simply called break time — has been receding since the late 1990s. In a 1998 front-page New York Times story about an Atlanta elementary school built without a playground, then APS superintendent Ben Canada said, “We are intent on improving academic performance. You don’t do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars.”

The parents at the school, Cleveland Avenue Elementary School, protested to Canada, citing the research about the benefits of unstructured play. But he countered that children today, especially those from impoverished backgrounds, are ”crying out for more structure, not less.” He said the PE classes offered by APS were more valuable as they taught students a skill, such as dance or gymnastics.

”Many parents still don’t quite get it,” Canada told the Times. ”They’ll ask, ‘So when are we getting a new playground?’ And I’ll say, ‘There’s not going to be a new playground.’ ”

Retired Georgia State University researcher Olga Jarrett, an expert on the role of play in child development, has been a passionate voice for recess. In a brief on its value, she noted, “Improvements in on-task behavior and attention after breaks strongly suggest recess might improve achievement. At the very least, it suggests that abolishing recess to include more instructional time in the school day might be counter-productive. ”

Recess lost more ground after the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which, with a rigid focus on test scores, accelerated the transition to academic kindergartens. Hourlong recess periods, which had been customary, disappeared. Today, elementary schools allot between 10 and 30 minutes, and some have no recess.

There is no federal requirement for recess as it’s seen as a state or local matter. Georgia does not insist schools have recess, and a bill to do so failed to pass this year. House Bill 273  would have stipulated daily recess for students in kindergarten through grade 5. The bill had widespread support from parents and teachers, but legislators seemed wary of piling another mandate on schools.

By the way, Cleveland Avenue Elementary School finally got a playground in 2008. The AJC reported  that the school raised about $8,000 for the playground, and Post Properties’ charity foundation provided the bulk, about $60,000.

I like to share good writing, and former AJC columnist Michael Skube provided plenty. Here is an excerpt from a column he wrote in 1998 about the lack of a playground at Cleveland Elementary:

Childhood isn’t for children anymore. It’s for toddlers and preschoolers. Once you reach first grade, school is serious business and you’ve got to be ”on task.”

I’d hate going to that dreary place and would never send my kids to a school like it. But there are children for whom the public school is the only choice. They are conscripts, like the kids at Cleveland.

They can forget hopscotch. They can forget marbles and jacks and jump rope. They can forget anything not structured, structured, structured. That would include play.

Five-year-old Toya Gray told the Times that she’d be happy just to ”sit on the grass and look for ladybugs.”

A lot of good that’s going to do her on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. So we’ll just close the doors on childhood at age 6 and get down to life’s grim business. Life’s about performance, isn’t it, not play?

It is in some places, and that’s why middle-aged adults are so miserable. They hate their jobs, sometimes hate their lives. They’re structured from the time the alarm rings in the morning until the time they fall asleep, their last refuge. They’d play hopscotch, if they could.

Structured lives

I liked what Juanita Gibson, a physical education teacher at Cleveland, told the Times. She’d like to see the schools have recess as well as P.E. ”Years ago, ” she said, ”you’d run home, throw your books down and run outside to play.”

Isn’t that the truth? She must have lived in my neighborhood. I had a paper route to finish first, but that’s exactly what we did. We played whatever we felt like playing, and in summer we came back out after dinner and caught lightning bugs.

We’ve structured those things out of children. They don’t know how to do anything spontaneously. Instead of play they have ”activities, ” which usually means mom taxiing them to ballet or soccer or baseball practice. And if nothing’s scheduled they’ll sit passively in front of the television, eyes glazed, or lose themselves in cyberspace.

Reader Comments 0

76 comments
Kayla Stelt
Kayla Stelt

Agreed. Everyone needs a break, fresh air, and exercise.

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

Recess?  In APS?  What for, when there’s social and emotional learning.  Then if and when SEL proves ineffective, there’s police in the schools.  And coming soon… weight rooms in middle schools.

Eileen Skeoch Hill
Eileen Skeoch Hill

Lack of recess and unstructured play is a national crisis for American children. Recess helps behavior problems. It provides a needed outlet for children to be social and get move around. Younger elementary aged children should be given more than one recess.

bu22
bu22

If a teacher eliminates recess for a misbehaving student, its like cutting off her nose to spite her face.  She will get more misbehavior, not less.

Falcaints
Falcaints

Just to be clear, teachers have no part in decision making. The no recess rule was not created nor called for by teachers. Everyone needs some unstructured time, i still can’t believe “kick ball” isn’t a national sport.

Kevin Shephard
Kevin Shephard

Recess is an important part of a well rounded curriculum.

Brenda Page
Brenda Page

I'm an adult and I need to have a recess

Melissa Irlandez
Melissa Irlandez

Kids play that is how they learn . Take it away and you will see disengagement.

Roselynn
Roselynn

During recess, if you have misbehaved, have that student walk the track by themselves, within eyesight of teachers.

Leila Holmann
Leila Holmann

The research is clear and all education experts agree: kids need recess and physical activity during the school day. It is healthy, improves behavior, focus and social skills. How were recess and PE even taken away in the first place? How did we get here?! As the mother of 2 active boys, I find it unconceivable that we expect them to go through 7 hours of instruction without a break other than lunch. Yet, this is what happens today at Inman Middle School and in most middle schools in Georgia! Bring recess and PE back, bring them back now, bring them back for elementary, bring them back for middle school. And don't allow teachers to take recess away.

gapeach101
gapeach101

Who among us would choose to attend a continuing education seminar that started at 8, ended at 3 and had a 30 minute break to eat.  And maybe that lunch is silent, because a few of your classmates weren't paying attention during a particularly boring portion of the lecture?  How many, having been subjected to this "learning environment" would be back week after week?  How much do you think you would learn in this environment? 

redweather
redweather

Okay, so what consequences should misbehaving students face? 

And Olga Jarrett's claim that “improvements in on-task behavior and attention after breaks strongly suggest recess might improve achievement" is laughable from a rhetorical standpoint. Where was this nonsense published?  The Lake Wobegon Review?


gapeach101
gapeach101

@redweather Google student achievement and recess , plenty of research shows how important recess is.

redweather
redweather

@gapeach101 @redweather My point was that it is absurd for Jarrett to claim that research strongly suggests something might happen. If something might happen, it also might not. 

Chrissy Sheets Weeks
Chrissy Sheets Weeks

Making sure they have PE would also be a good thing. But some sort of unstructured break during the day is good.

Chrissy Sheets Weeks
Chrissy Sheets Weeks

It is like a coffee break for grown-ups. Sometimes you just need a minute to chill or play or whatever!

Cathy Thirsk Stevens
Cathy Thirsk Stevens

It's a critical part of their development. I can't believe it is thought of something students earn. Something very wrong with a culture/society that has this mentality.

MichaelMitchell
MichaelMitchell

It is neither, it is a necessity in order to let out some steam and better be able to concentrate. 

Lexie Kennedy Clutter
Lexie Kennedy Clutter

It's what they need. My first grader hates school this year because she only gets one recess at the end of the day!

Kegan Heagy
Kegan Heagy

I might have only gotten one or maybe two recesses when I was in elementary, but seems to me like with the shortening of summer break, common core, and everything else going on they are trying to make students mindless drones who can do well on a test but lack in many other areas, kind of like some other countries, yea we might not have the greatest test scores in America compared to the world, but for now at least we have free thinking and problem solving for the most part.

Shanon S Washburn
Shanon S Washburn

A foundation they need!! So many life lessons are learned on a play ground, plus kids need time to burn energy.

Stephanie Rapson Douglas
Stephanie Rapson Douglas

Aunt Shannon, This is soooo close to my heart! I CANNOT stand when teachers take away recess as a means of punishment. When Johnny was little teachers would use that as a means of punishment or make the students earn it. OR they would go the complete opposite and make them run laps if they disobeyed, which would teach them that exercising is a punishment. Children are forced to sit at a desk 7+ hours a day, which in my opinion is ridiculous to begin with, and then they're forced to miss the only time during the day to run, get energy out, and fresh air in their lungs. In my opinion every school day should begin with 30 minutes of outside play. Can you tell how this still makes me mad years later! \U0001f602\U0001f622

Carole Veschi
Carole Veschi

I am an adult and I need a break from hours of computer work. Why wouldn't children?

Kathy Brown
Kathy Brown

The national pTA is pro exercise and I believe that “nutrition law” that was enacted back around 2005 also was pro exercise given OUR obesity rate in this state. In other words food and exercise should not be used as a weapon for teachers!

Lauren Maxwell Connolly
Lauren Maxwell Connolly

A flipping FOUNDATION. I still can't believe that this is even a topic up for discussion... :'(

Astropig
Astropig

”Many parents still don’t quite get it,” Canada told the Times. ”They’ll ask, ‘So when are we getting a new playground?’ And I’ll say, ‘There’s not going to be a new playground.’ ”


This guy's utter arrogance is a gift beyond price for homeschoolers and choice advocates.


He's an idiot,and I'm calling him one-right here,right now.



Harlequin
Harlequin

@Astropig "It's my school, I do what I like!" That's a typical school principal's ultimate response!

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

@Astropig "He's an idiot,and I'm calling him one-right here,right now."


That's good, but pointless.  Canada is dead.  But before dying, his "arrogance" went from being Atlanta superintendent to being Portland superintendent.  But unlike Atlanta folk, Portland folk said "we're not having it" so they got rid of him.  Soon afterwards, he died. 

Michelle Watson
Michelle Watson

It is a privilege they need. They don't earn it, but in certain instances removing it can be a good disciplinary action. Personally, I never needed it. I didn't feel like I had many friends and recess made me feel alone. I didn't like being outside either. I would have much rather been inside reading a book most years. I don't think a child should be forced to go to recess. There should be other options. And by the time children are in sixth grade it needs to be taken away altogether. Let the days be shorter and let them go home earlier with the extra time because by the time we were in sixth grade was the time we started getting in trouble doing teenage hormone-based things at recess. And high schoolers need it even less. Just let them go home earlier because what they don't need is wasted time at school.

Susan Blount Campbell
Susan Blount Campbell

Middle schoolers do better with recess because they also need a brain break and some physical time. It should not be removed at sixth grade.

Michelle Watson
Michelle Watson

Not every kid needs to move more. I didn't. I still don't. I am just saying it shouldn't be forced, and it would be much better for the students to go home to their parents sooner, where they belong, than to use recess as a reason to prolong the day. If you want kids to get recess, don't take away gym.

Shira Newman
Shira Newman

Removing it is horrific. And doesn't get the problem solved. Kids need to move more than adults. Punishment and reward does not work. Go read the book raising human beings by Ross greene.

Susan Blount Campbell
Susan Blount Campbell

They won't let them out earlier for that. And again, gym and recess are not synonymous. It isn't just about the physical activity. Gym doesn't provide the brain break, the unstructured time, or the social opportunity that they don't even get during lunch anymore. Recess is critical for kids. There's loads of research that backs this up. School districts are starting to understand this, finally.

Nichelle Young
Nichelle Young

A foundation that is needed. If a child is restless during class and you take away their recess, how is that going to help them become LESS restless?

Babycat
Babycat

There needs to be unstructured time for all of the students, getting outside when weather permits or just time to sit and visit with classmates when the weather is not so good.  To take away this time as punishment means that the teacher will have to sit with this child in the classroom as well.  Sometimes the recess time is just the ticket to help control the "uncontrollable" behavior.  Given that most forms of discipline have been removed, this may be the only thing that can be used to get a constant problem child to behave.

Ashley Langford
Ashley Langford

It is a foundation they need. It is also, one of the few things we have to use as a tool for behavior. While most schools try to focus on the positive behavior and rewarding good choices, students need to have consequences for negative choices as well. There are fewer and fewer choices available to teachers and schools when rewarding both positive and negative consequences. I always try to include brain breaks and exercise in my routines in order to allow students a physical activity break a few times a day.

Kodie56
Kodie56

@teacherandmom

It sounds like Finland has a great set up!  


It's common sense to let children play.  It's how they learn socialization, games, and fair play.  I know as an adult I get bored after about 45 minutes of class time and certainly could use a break.  I can't believe  psychologists and sociologists for that matter have let the matter of PE and recess get to the point of being banned from schools.  The child held in at recess for behavior issues is probably the child who needs a break the most

Erika Harris
Erika Harris

I can't believe this is even a question.... it's a necessity. How many research reports and simple looks inside a classroom do we need to end this discussion and make this a mandatory requirement in all schools?

AJC  Get Schooled
AJC Get Schooled

Why do you think this remains unresolved? There was a lot of testimony this year in favor of making recess mandatory in Georgia and yet the Legisature felt it would put a burden on schools at a time when they are overburdened.

Ashley Langford
Ashley Langford

I don’t believe recess burdens schools. I believe other mandates and high stakes testing is what is overburdening. Schools remove or drastically reduce recess because that time is essential to “passing a test” to keep funding. Remove the burdens of high stakes testing and allow schools and teachers to have more freedom in their schedule.

Reina King
Reina King

It seems common sense to me, but a lot of the things that make sense in my home, school, or community aren't the best solutions for others. I understood both sides of the legislative argument, but at a time when the legislature is placing unimaginable bureaucratic burdens on local systems while slashing funding and undermining commitment with choice, voucher, and contrary ESSA policies, I agree that mandating recess is "just one more" straw on the back of local systems. It made sense to me to let communities decide for themselves how to best use their time and resources.