posted on November 05, 2012 14:21
Is Recess a Luxury?
AS ADULTS, MOST OF US INTUITIVELY KNOW WHEN WE'VE STOPPED
CONCENTRATING and need to take a break. Many of us are able to
stand and stretch, go for a coffee or take a short walk to refresh and
recharge before we go back to the task at hand. Children are not given
the same latitude at their job. Recess has been shortened and even
eliminated in the search for higher test scores. Since the
implementation in 2002 of No Child Left Behind, many schools have
replaced recess with increased amounts of academic learning. Where
recess still exists, children with behavioral issues can still lose
recess as a consequence for loss of attention, impulsive acts,
fidgeting, and calling out.
Are our children paying a price we’ve only just begun to
The research that there is a set of skills that are not learned in a
classroom is clear and well documented. A study published in
Pediatrics suggests that recess of fifteen minutes or more may
play a role in “improving learning, social development and health
in elementary school children.” According to the American Academy
of Pediatrics, the authors write, “free unstructured play is
healthy and is essential for helping children reach important social,
emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones.” The U.S.
Centers for Disease Control recommends sixty minutes of physical
activity daily. A study published in School Psychology
Quarterly looked at the effect of recess on classroom behavior on
children with and without ADHD. The study results showed that levels of
inappropriate behavior were consistently higher on days when
participants did not have recess.
Not all schools or school districts have jettisoned recess, however.
What kinds of recess programs are being implemented at those
Jemicy’s unique approach
At the Jemicy School, a small private school north of
Baltimore, a unique approach to recess has been intrinsic since its
founding. No one ever loses recess and multiple recess options exist for
the students. Two recesses are scheduled every morning, one seventeen
and one twenty minutes in length. The school is located on a former
farm, tucked back behind a lovely neighborhood. In addition to enjoying
standard playground equipment, students can explore the woods, climb
down to a stream, make a fort, divert water from the stream, or play in
a second wooded area that is a little more open and level. There is a
vegetable garden, and students have access to a science classroom
stocked with animals and small appliances that they can dismantle. Art
and woodworking supplies and tools are also available.
Science instructor Emily Stanley, PhD, did her dissertation on the
importance of recess. In an article she wrote for Thresholds in
Education, she describes the approach taken at Jemicy. The article
is based on a study she did of outdoor play. Stanley demonstrates the
value of free play in the development of children’s social skills
with special emphasis on language development. She explains how the
informal development of language skills is enhanced by the free play,
sometimes as simple as an exchange between two students each holding a
guinea pig, or group of students constructing a fort or setting up
trades for items found in the woods.
A much more structured recess program is offered by Playworks (playworks.org), a
fifteen-year-old California-based nonprofit organization with programs
at two hundred and fifty schools in thirty cities. Schools can purchase
a recess program for $60,000 per year, although Playworks helps schools
obtain grants and donations to cover some of the cost. Playworks
provides recent college graduates and Americorps volunteers who they
have trained as recess coaches.
In “Hard Times for Recess,” a recent New York Times
Fixes column, David Bornstein discusses a little of the history of play
and outlines why he feels children may need coaches. “In decades
past, when neighborhoods were perceived to be safe children had lots of
times to play outdoors and they naturally picked up the culture of play
from older kids,” Bornstein writes. “Today, children are
indoors more…and engage in vigorous activity for only 12.6 minutes
per day—nowhere near the sixty minutes that the surgeon general
Playworks coaches teach the children how to play. They teach the
students how to organize the playground and they introduce games,
dividing various area of the playground for different games. They teach
conflict resolution and help develop “junior coaches” to
assist with younger children. A recent article in the Star
Tribune by Daarel Burnett II suggested satisfaction with the
program. “Kris Petersen, principal of Jayden Heights and
Prosperity Heights in St. Paul, said Playworks couldn’t have come
at a better time,” Burnett writes. The principal observed that the
“structured recess helped us build a vibrant community and
connected kids to create an inclusive community.”
Can parents make a difference?
What can parents do if recess is being taken away as a consequence for
behavior? In meetings with the teacher or at an IEP or 504 meeting,
it’s important to have concrete descriptions of why the child is
losing recess. Obviously, the teacher is trying to solve a problem. Once
the problem is identified, alternative solutions can be suggested. If
the child is not finishing the work, perhaps the work needs to be
shortened for that child. If the child can demonstrate competence, is it
necessary to continue? If the child is fidgeting, is there an acceptable
fidget item the child can use that will not distract other children?
In their book ADHD in the Schools: Assessment and Intervention
Strategies, George DuPaul of Lehigh University and Gary Stoner of
the University of Rhode Island wrote a chapter that describes
empirically supported school-based interventions to change and manage
impulsive behaviors. They stress that the intervention must occur as
close in time as possible to the targeted behavior. In other words, a
consequence designed to help the student stay on task in reading must
take place during the reading instructional period. A consequence given
an hour later—such as missing recess—will be much less
effective. Another excellent source of information is the CHADD
Educators Manual on ADHD, edited by Chris A. Zeigler Dendy, MS,
which contains many valuable suggestions for accommodations and
interventions that can be shared with the child’s teacher.
DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH RECESS IS SCHEDULED INTO
YOUR CHILD'S DAY? Do you know what kind of recess is planned?
Is it structured or free play? Does your child have the opportunity for
games as well as small-group peer experience?
If recess seems to lack any of the elements considered important for
your child’s overall development, can you find or structure
replacements? Are there areas near you that your child and a friend can
explore? Is there a nature center nearby that is open and accessible for
hikes? Are there parks where your child can run free or organize games
If you find that recess has been curtailed or eliminated at your
child’s school, you might start by asking other parents if they
are aware of the situation and begin to form a group of concerned
parents. Gather information on the value of recess, ask to meet with
policymakers, and find out how to present the information to your local
school board. Enlist the help of experts in child psychology and child
Barros, Romina M., Ellen J. Silver, and Ruth E. K. Stein. "School Recess
and Group Classroom Behavior." Pediatrics 123 (February
Bornstein, David. “Hard Times for Recess.” Fixes, New
York Times: April 4, 2011. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/04/hard-times-for-recess.
Burnette, Daarel. “School playground duty outsourced to
‘recess coaches.’” Star Tribune: May 16,
DuPaul, George J., and Gary Stoner. ADHD in the Schools: Assessment
and Intervention Strategies. New York: Guilford, 2004.
Dendy, Chris A. Zeigler, ed. CHADD Educators Manual on ADHD.
Landover, MD: CHADD, 2006.
Ridgway, Andrea, John Northup, Angie Pellegrin, Robert LaRue, and Anne
Hightsoe. “Effects of Recess on the Classroom Behavior of Children
With and Without Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.”
School Psychology Quarterly 18 (Fall 2003):
Stanley, Emily L. “Replaying Recess: An Inquiry Into the Value of
Outdoor Play in School.” Thresholds in Education 35 no. 3
Barbara Hawkins, president-elect of CHADD, is the former coordinator
of CHADD of Greater Baltimore and a recipient of the CHADD Volunteer of
the Year Award. The parent of an adult daughter with ADHD, Hawkins is a
This article appeared in the August 2011 issue of
Attention magazine. Copyright © 2011 by Children and
Adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. All rights
reserved. No portion of this article may be reprinted without written
permission of CHADD.