Taking Away Recess

According to a Gallup poll77 percent of school principals report that they withhold recess as punishment, even as they sing the praises of recess as a factor in academic, cognitive, and social development. In that same report, eight in 10 principals acknowledge that time to play has a “positive impact on achievement,” and two-thirds of principals state that “students listen better after recess and are more focused in class.”

Despite overwhelming evidence that periods of unstructured play and social interaction are a crucial part of children’s cognitive, academic, physical and mental wellness, schools continue to take away recess privileges as a penalty for academic or behavioral transgressions. When students fail to hand in assignments or when a child acts up in class, teachers have taken their recess privileges hostage.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a policy statement,  “The Crucial Role of Research,” In response to this common disciplinary practice, as well as the overall declining rates and duration of recess. Their stance is that: “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, schools should keep recess on the schedule. The physical benefits of recess to all students, particularly the 17 percent of American children who are classified as obese, are clear. In our increasingly sedentary society, it can be a challenge to ensure that children get the recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day, and recess can help bridge that gap.

Research indicates that recess provides an opportunity to refill children’s reserves of self-control through play and expression that’s free from structure, rules, and rigorous cognitive tasks. Several studies have found that students who enjoy the benefit of recess are more attentive, more productive and better able to learn when they return to the classroom from a period of free play.

Memory is also enhanced by breaks because cognitive rest after learning new material allows that material to be retained for longer periods of time. For optimal cognitive processing and memory consolidation, therefore, children need a period of unstructured free time, even if it is simply in the form of socializing or daydreaming.

Finally, recess helps young children develop social skills, such as negotiation, social dynamics, and the use of subtle verbal and non-verbal communication cues. As our children’s schedules become more regimented and structured, and free-play time retreats indoors in favor of video games over kick the can and stickball, recess is the only opportunity many children have to learn these skills.

What does recess do for students?

1. Brain power. Instead of being refreshed and ready to learn, they are brain-drained, as they have lost out on the opportunity to regain the energy needed for focus.

2. Connection with peers. Not only does the benched kid gain a reputation of being a “bad kid,” they lose out on the opportunities to practice social skills, make new friends and strengthen existing friendships.

3. Relationship with teachers. When a teacher holds a student out of recess, she undermines her relationship with that student. Consequently, student will tune that teacher out just when she should be tuning in and learning.

4. Opportunities to learn a different behavior. Being left out of recess “doesn’t help a child understand what she did wrong, and even more importantly, doesn’t help her learn how to make it right the next time. Without that instruction, she becomes a repeat offender, and a self-perpetuating cycle of bad behavior and punishment takes over.”

If we truly want our children to function at their academic, physical and mental best, teachers need to stop withholding recess, and schools need to protect it. Cutting into or taking away recess time is counter-intuitive and self-defeating. When we deprive our children of the cognitive rest and physical activity they need to perform at their best, teachers undermine the very education we seek to impart.

Research clearly indicates that taking away recess as a punishment for behavior problems or academic lapses won’t help, and might hurt. Students and teachers need time to unwind.  The increased demands of high stakes testing has led to the decline of recess, physical education and the “fun things’ that schools have the ability to provide.  Schools cannot have it both ways.