Movement Breaks Should Not Be a Substitute for Recess

December 19, 2019
Movement Breaks Should Not Be a Substitute for Recess

Originally published in Let Grow by Kate Sundquist, December 2019

High knees and jumping jacks shouldn’t replace sunshine and free play.

When the school’s phone number pops up on my phone at 11:30 on a Tuesday, I pause. For a split second, I catch myself thinking, “Please don’t be the principal.”

I have to move on quickly from this line of thought because the only other possibility would be the nurse, and really, which would I rather have? A kid who’s in trouble, or one who is sick or injured? Honestly, given the year my 1st grader was having, I wasn’t sure.

On this day, though, it was both. The principal was calling to let me know that my 6-year-old had been injured during a classroom movement break. He had tickled a friend, who clearly didn’t like to be tickled. In return, the friend bashed my son’s head onto a desk, giving him a fat lip and a bloody nose.

“I’m very sorry that he was hurt, there is no excuse for that,” the principal noted. “But he cannot be touching people in the classroom. I think we can all agree that this wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t tickled the other child.”

At this moment, my mind couldn’t help but drift to the old days. You know, the days where our school had an actual morning recess. Now it was just a legend, replaced years ago by a single 19-minute recess in the middle of the day. Along with, of course, these movement breaks in the classroom. Our kids’ much-needed recess time and free play had changed and not for good.

Movement breaks often stimulate kids instead of calm them.

You see, my son struggles with these breaks. I know he needs motion, but he is a child who needs also freedom and exhilaration. He needs to run, feel his muscles stretching, and his heart pounding. He thrives in fast forward. And this just isn’t something he can do while standing at his desk, no matter how good the break is.

When movement breaks were initially introduced, I thought—heck yes, thank you. I assumed they would fill a need for my son in the same way that his single recess did during the school day. Instead of thriving in movement breaks, though, he floundered. He struggled to dance in his own space, and his volume was too loud. His movements were too loose and uncontrolled. During the breaks, he bumped into his neighbors and struggled to collect himself when the three minutes were up.

His teacher started implementing calming time to follow the movement breaks because so many students were getting wound up. Keeping a lid on his movements and his emotions during these so-called breaks was exhausting for him and other students, too. They now needed two breaks—the second to help recover from the first.

When I voiced my concern to the principal, she did not mince words. “I know,” she sighed “For some students, I have found that movement breaks can be somewhat—” she searched for the right word “—overstimulating.”

Do movement breaks actually help with classroom management?

If you have not encountered this phenomenon yet, movement breaks are a relatively recent introduction to schools. Also sometimes referred to as energizers or brain breaks, these activities essentially aim to increase engagement and decrease disciplinary issues by allowing students short mental and physical breaks in the classroom. The common classroom management system Responsive Classroom describes them as “brief intervals that enable all students to move their bodies and help teachers to engage learners in physical ways.”

Movement breaks typically take place while standing at a desk or table. Sometimes students may also be invited to move around the room. At my sons’ school, movement breaks commonly take the form of a short, choreographed video shown on the SmartBoard. Students learn dances and follow along to characters on the screen. Catchy tunes, bright lights, and a pumping bass are all typical.

The jury is still out on the effectiveness of these breaks, though. Anecdotally, many teachers report an increase in overall engagement following movement breaks. Initial studies have pointed to decreases in disciplinary episodes and increases in on-task behavior in classrooms implementing movement breaks, but literature reviews on the topic point to inconclusive results and other studies have found no variations between students having movement breaks and those without.

Movement breaks don’t work the same for every kid.

In my son’s case, the principal’s word choice was correct. In fact, to him, movement breaks were not just overstimulating, they were also confusing. On one hand, he felt invited to let loose. But on the other, he had trouble doing so within the boundaries. Then he had even more trouble putting the lid back on after just a few minutes. It was like he was a spinning top set into motion. Then he’s expected to stop on a dime when the music stopped.

If you ask him directly, he self reports he loves movement breaks and that they are commonly his favorite aspect of any class. Then he also readily points out that he prefers recess because it’s longer and he can choose what he does.

He’s not alone, either. A closer look at many of the studies pointing to the benefits of movement breaks reveals that these benefits are mostly just a smaller scale version of those that come from recess. One study showed that benefits were insignificant under 10 minutes of break time and another pointed out that benefits continued to increase with up to 20 minutes of break time.

The benefits of recess extend even further, well beyond those associated with simply moving in a classroom. The CDC specifically defines recess as “unstructured physical activity and play,” and unlike during a movement break, the unstructured nature of recess is a primary contributor to its success. One comprehensive literature review points out that the unique blend of unstructured play at recess contributes “to a child’s creative, social, and emotional development.” Other studies confirm that unstructured recess breaks are associated with increased creativity and problem-solving skills, along with gains in social skills like conflict resolution and cooperation.

Movement breaks can complement recess well when done right.

The research is so compelling that the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a policy statement noting that: “Recess serves as a necessary break from the rigors of concentrated, academic challenges in the classroom. But equally important is the fact that safe and well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it.” In other words, the benefits of recess go well beyond taking a break from academics.

Why then are some schools continuing to cut back on recess and attempt to replace this valuable unstructured time with movement breaks? Why exchange the exponential benefits of recess for the diminished return of a little bit of limb loosening?

This year my son was lucky enough to be in a classroom where he routinely has three unstructured times of play per day. Best of all, it’s outside when the weather allows. This has been amazing for him…and me. I’ve had no more calls from the principal. He still has movement breaks sprinkled throughout his academics. But he also has appropriate time allotted to intense physical activity and free play at recess. This year has literally been a breath of fresh air.

Of course, there’s a place for movement breaks. They break up long periods of sitting, they allow time for short-term memory processing, and they stimulate oxygen flow to re-energize a tired learner. However, as recess shrinks overall, they can’t step in. You cannot replicate the benefits of recess with movement breaks.

These quick breaks in the day may serve as a refresher for many students, but in the words of my son, “Recess is way better.”