School Recess Keeps Shrinking, and Our Children Deserve Better

December 29, 2019
School Recess Keeps Shrinking, and Our Kids Deserve Better

Originally published in Let Grow by Holly Korbey, December 2019

When my youngest son started kindergarten in Nashville a few years ago, I was excited about a new Tennessee law requiring three 15-minute school recesses per day. I wouldn’t have to worry about my energetic little boy bouncing off the walls at school.

But it didn’t last. After hearing from frustrated teachers and school leaders two years later, lawmakers changed the law to something they deemed more flexible. Instead of 45 minutes of daily recess, they put in a more general activity requirement—kids needed to move 130 minutes weekly. The new law allowed more activities to count. Physical education classes, indoor “brain breaks” and GoNoodle were now all part of recess minimums.

What exactly counts as school recess?

Quickly, these new flexible requirements were easily met in gym class, which translated into fewer and shorter recess times and free play opportunities. Even movement breaks would count as recess at some schools. Around this time, the school day became a lot harder for kids like my son.

Though lawmakers, schools, and parents all agreed (at least on paper) that unstructured recess was important and necessary to physical and cognitive development as shown by a mountain of research, now that they weren’t required by law to take kids outside. Therefore, many classrooms simply stopped doing it.

In the last few years, a wave of state laws requiring recess minimums have been pushed through statehouses with the help of vocal parents and teachers. Proponents for recess often place blame on laws and lawmakers disconnected from the daily life of children and schools. Others, like former Finnish Education Minister Pasi Sahlberg in his new book, Let the Children Play, place at least part of the blame on what they call GERM (the Global Education Reform Movement) and its strict academic and accountability measures. Pressure from the new academic requirements have indeed caused recess time to shrink since No Child Left Behind was put into law in the early 2000s.

But in talking with schools who have committed to adding more recess to the school day, the barriers often seem more prosaic—classrooms too far from doors to the outside, or not having the time to work through scheduling. Play just doesn’t fit in with today’s schools and school days.

The LiiNK Project is pushing for a better way.

A former physical education teacher is now trying to change that and bring recess back in schools across the country. Dr. Debbie Rhea is a professor of physical education at Texas Christian University. She and her team help schools implement an hour’s worth of recess into the school day. Rhea created the LiiNK Project (Let’s Inspire Innovation ‘N Kids) that trains teachers and administrators how to make room for four 15-minute sessions of free play every day.

“If you want to integrate more than one recess a day, it really takes more planning, more initiative, more organization,” Rhea said. “It takes change in order to make this fly.”

What’s required, Rhea said, is a new ways of thinking. It’s not just about adding one more recess to the day; it’s about doing it well. “If it hasn’t been done well enough or intentional enough to make sure that teachers can stay with it, they’re going to stop doing it if it impedes their time on-task in the classroom.”

Rhea has implemented LiiNK in 38 schools, mostly in Texas. The most common and persistent barrier to more recess, she said, is time. It’s a big change to move from one or two recesses a day. Rhea said the most common question she gets asked is, “How are we going to fit everything in?”

She says it’s important to remember that the number of minutes spent on academic content doesn’t necessarily equate to outcomes. In fact, in their data collection, LiiNK found that frequent breaks allow children greater focus back in the classroom.

We need to rethink the school day.

But even with that mind-shift, there still needs to be a school-wide effort. Kelly Ramsay is the principal of Greenfield Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas. They implemented LiiNK and said it had them rethink the day and schedules as a whole. They looked at planning and instruction to make sure time wasn’t wasted.

“You have to be purposeful in planning and scheduling,” Ramsay said. “Everybody needs to work together. If you don’t have the support system and admin on board, it’s not going to work.”

Yes, there are challenges in bringing more recess into schools, but schools say it’s worth it. Greenfield Elementary is now in its third year of implementing four 15-minute recesses, and it’s working. “I find that our students now are more focused, they have a greater ability to problem-solve, and they get back to work faster,” Ramsay said. “They know that in about an hour they can get up and have another break.”

Data on the program supports Ramsay’s observation: LiiNK students have fewer off-task behaviorslonger attention spans, and they’ve also shown other benefits, like lower BMI, compared to non-LiiNK students. This is an era where kids and teachers are suffering from high levels of stress and anxiety. We need more schools willing to see recess plans through.

Surveying the hurdles, I can better understand the Tennessee law reversal, and why schools like my son’s are having a difficult time implementing enough time for children to play—their environments aren’t conducive to it.

But getting to that change means pushing though those challenges, and our kids definitely deserve it.