The Death of Recess in America

January 30, 2020
The Death of Recess in America

Originally published by The Best Schools by TBS staff, January 2019

There is something horribly wrong with America’s children.

They can’t sit still. They have a hard time focusing in class. They struggle to remain silent during crucial testing preparation. Why, it’s almost as though they are naturally programmed for running, jumping, and playing, as opposed to studying, reciting, and memorizing.

Obviously, we are in the grips of a terrible ADHD epidemic. Maybe we haven’t been prescribing enough drugs. Or is it that we haven’t been prescribing enough recess?

Indeed, there are those that would have you believe unstructured play time during the course of a school day is somehow healthier, more natural, and more beneficial than Ritalin. The only oligarchy likely to hate this conclusion more than Big Pharma is Big Testing.

Both industries have so much to gain from squandered youth. Both have benefited considerably from the wholesale destruction of recess. And both have enjoyed robust financial returns as the time set aside for play has dwindled.

But according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), we are depriving young learners of precious time. And not to get all existential on you, but that’s time they’ll never get back.

Recess is critical, say experts in childhood development. Recess is a period of the school day set aside for the physical, social, and cognitive pursuits that can’t otherwise be achieved in the sit-down-and-shut-up environment that is an elementary school classroom.

But this respite from organized learning is not only invaluable for what the students are doing on the playground. It is equally as vital for what they are not doing, namely math, reading, or science.

School revolves around these things, as it should. But the importance of taking a breather between these things cannot be overstated, especially considering just how many schools are now blowing the final whistle on recess altogether.

In Defense of Recess

As the imperative to squeeze every last drop of instructional time out of the school day has intensified, we have become increasingly committed to the premise that students learn best when drilled constantly with information. This premise is, of course, drawn entirely from the groundbreaking therapy used to psychologically destroy the main character from A Clockwork Orange.

But some experts have suggested that taping our children’s eyeballs open and forcing them to consume data without rest is actually not the optimal way to learn. In fact, say researchers, young learners are capable of absorbing and accomplishing far more in considerably less time when given properly allotted breaks.

When the AAP began its investigation into the subject in 2007, it did so under the assumption that recess would prove critical to the physical well-being of young students. Lead researcher and Ohio State University professor Dr. Robert Murray presumed that the merit of the free period was largely based on the opportunity it provided for students to exercise on their own terms. The findings certainly bore out this hypothesis.

There is much more to recess than just kickball and red rover.

What his team found, though, was that there is so much more to recess than just kickball and Red Rover (remember Red Rover?) We’ve already known for years that the loosely defined parameters of playtime allow children to explore teamwork, competition, rule formulation, and conflict resolution, all developmental building blocks that help them to grow into healthy and functional members of society.

Naturally, these are learning outcomes in which Common Core testing policies have precious little interest. After all, these outcomes can’t be measured by multiple choice examination. But the AAP did discover something that might interest test administrators. Recess also helps children perform better in the classroom.

Recess also helps children perform better in the classroom.

When the AAP released its statement on the subject through the journal Pediatrics in 2013, Dr. Murray concluded that Children need to have downtime between complex cognitive challenges.

Think of your child as a fireplace, constantly being stoked with information. If you close off the flue, that big fire that you spent all this time building will have nowhere to vent. Smoke will billow around you in clouds too thick to see through.

This is how your kids feel when you cram them with information and give them no place to vent it. Children learn and perform better, says the AAP, when they’ve had a chance to blow off some steam on the playground. If you don’t let this happen, that fire that you’ve stoked with information will become little more than a confusing cloud, choking out all of the enthusiasm that you’ve so carefully kindled.

Children need to be vented and what they do in that space of time is not particularly important.

Children and chimneys need a vent so they don’t explode.

That means that even the weird kid who sits in the corner of the playground eating clumps of dirt is doing something constructive with his time. For all you know, he’s taking his first steps toward becoming a world-renowned food critic. And he should return to class with a renewed sense of focus and enthusiasm.

Testing Versus Tag

Common Core testing has proven itself the enemy of all things creative. Art, music, and physical education have become dispensable.

Sure, these subjects may help to make students more creative, engaged, and excited about learning, but on the surface, they appear to contribute little to testing outcomes. For teachers and schools that are graded and funded according to test results, there simply isn’t enough time to create students who are well-rounded.

Check out our piece, the Uncommon Core, for more on these cuts.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Students are becoming more well-rounded in one respect: childhood obesity rates have more than doubled in the last 30 years. Roughly 18% of children are obese today. The gutting of physical education is certainly a factor.

The gradual defenestration of recess in favor of test prep threatens only to deepen the childhood obesity epidemic. This wouldn’t be a worthy sacrifice even if it was working (which it isn’t).

But with little daylight left to be diverted for added classroom time, recess is now getting the axe in countless schools. According to FairTest.org, schools throughout the nation have given recess the boot in order to counteract poor test scores. Places like the Bain School of Arts and Language in Kenosha, Wisconsin and the Clark County School District in Nevada have done away with recess so as to better focus on core academic areas.

Countless schools are axing recess to make more time for test prep, as if childhood development is less important than test scores. Ironically, both suffer at the loss of recess.

Schools in Gadsden City, Alabama decided to replace kindergarten nap time with additional test preparation. (Just remember that when your five-year-old is diagnosed with an acute anxiety disorder).

Most recently, 23 Orange Country, Florida elementary schools trimmed down or cut out recess entirely in order to the maximize the amount of classroom afforded for test prep.

Recess has become another incidental casualty as standardized testing continues its ruthless crusade to swallow up each and every part of the school day. Amazingly, the bevy of findings suggesting that recess is an essential part of a student’s day has done nothing to slow the pace of its demise.

In a 2007 report called Recess Rules, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation determined that only 36% of American children currently engage in the recommended amount of daily physical activity. The same report calls recess one of the best ways for children to partake of said activity during the course of days otherwise spent bound to a desk.

Unless the goal is to create a generation of tightly wound, overweight, socially inept, and terminally bored children, we might want to reconsider the degree to which we have allowed testing to dominate their lives.

Standardized Recess

Some schools are beginning to take playtime more seriously and they are already seeing results in the classroom. Fort Worth, Texas-based Eagle Mountain Elementary School is among the first to act on the AAP’s findings.

While schools all around the United States are shrinking or altogether disposing of recess time, Eagle Mountain is looking overseas for its inspiration. For years now, Finland has consistently ranked at or near the top of the Programme for International Student Assessment list while the United States has seen its position tumble with the same level of consistency.

The reasons for Finland’s success are many (too many to address here), but one practice stood out to Texas Christian University kinesiologist Debbie Rhea. As Rhea found during a period of observation abroad, Finnish schools provide their students with substantially more downtime over the course of a school day. This, she resolved, contributes at least in part to the fact that Finnish students are at once healthier and better at testing than are American students.

Under Rhea’s guidance, Eagle Mountain tripled recess time from 20 minutes a day to a full hour. Students are now given four 15 minute breaks, distributed throughout the day. Teachers at the school have described the outcome as a huge transformation. Students are more focused, less distracted, less prone to behavioral transgressions, and (most importantly, if there’s any chance of justifying this practice to testing advocates) well ahead of academic schedule as compared to their less-liberated peers.

Of course, it is only one school, but the results at Eagle Mountain pretty much bash to pieces the idea that there are any benefits to transforming the school day into a single, monolithic test-cramming session.

Our test-happy academic culture is counter-intuitive to the goals of learning and healthy human development.

So too does every bit of research conducted on the subject by professionals in medicine, cognition, and learning theory. Behold yet another strand of evidence to suggest that our test-happy academic culture is counter-intuitive to the goals of learning and healthy human development. With every critical dimension of your child’s education that is replaced by another session of test preparation, a part of his or her childhood is lost to boredom and disenchantment.