Finding middle ground in the debate over recess

December 26, 2019

Originally published in CommonWealth Magazine by Todd Gazda, December 2019

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.  – Fred Rogers

AS EDUCATORS, the most precious resource we have is time. There never seems to be enough of it to cover the ever increasing litany of skills and content we need to teach our students on a daily basis. As society has evolved, what and how we teach has changed with it. However, sometimes we must look to the past for guidance as our current push for a rigorous academic focus has left us scrambling to reintroduce Social Emotional Learning (SEL) opportunities into our daily routines.

I’ve been thinking a great deal recently about how we use our time and what is considered structured learning time, particularly at the elementary school level. It seems like every year some form of bill is put forward seeking to mandate a certain amount of recess time per day at the elementary school level. Educational researchers almost universally recognize the importance of recess and unstructured play in the development of appropriate social skills in young children. However, administrators frequently push back against the idea of mandating a certain amount of recess time within the school day due to constraints caused by contractual obligations and the state time on learning requirements. It’s not that we don’t see the importance of recess or recognize its value. It’s simply that we don’t have the time to offer more recess within daily schedules packed with academics.

Additionally, as a consequence of the cultural shift our country is experiencing outside of the confines of our schools, students are exposed to more screen time and less unstructured play time with peers in general. With increasing frequency, we see children at the elementary school level who experience daily challenges in self-regulating their behavior and navigating social interactions with their peers. In the past social emotional learning opportunities came more naturally in the course of the elementary school day. I am not here advocating for a return to that less structured time, but I think a middle ground is available in order to continue our focus on academics, while recognizing the need to nurture those “soft” social skills as well.

Today, when children are afforded the opportunity to interact with peers it is often through structured recreational activities such as sports or clubs. It has become evident that more time is needed for students to acquire essential social skills developed through unstructured play where they have the opportunity to learn coping skills and hone the ability to have appropriate social interactions with their peers. Recess at the elementary level allows time for such unstructured play while maintaining a level of supervision to ensure safety and providing access to educational professionals to help students process negative social interactions.

SEL has been an important area of focus in our state in recent years and I assert that you would be hard pressed to find an elementary school educator who would disagree with the importance of recess and unstructured play within that SEL continuum. However, one of the challenges we face at the district and building level is in fitting such time into our daily schedules, as it is not considered “structured learning time” and thus does not count towards our yearly 900-hour time on learning requirement at the elementary level here in Massachusetts.

In order to overcome this obstacle, what we need to do is allow up to 20 minutes per day of recess time at the elementary school level to be considered eligible to be included in the calculation for time on learning. Removing the “mandate” aspect of proposed legislation will help cut through some of the instinctive resistance such proposals engender. However, the natural effect of freeing schools to consider recess time as eligible “structured learning time” will be an increase in the amount of said time for elementary children.

This approach will free schools to make a local determination as to how much recess is appropriate in their community. Schools can elect to have more than 20 minutes of recess a day, however by making only 20 minutes eligible to be counted towards time on learning this will place a limit on how much time is devoted to this activity, while recognizing the importance of recess and unstructured play in the developmental growth and learning of our children.