Recess is in distress. That all-important chance to refresh mind and body in the middle of a stressful school day is in danger of disappearing.
In a full school week, third graders in American public schools had an average of only 1.7 hours of recess, according to a National Center for Education Statistics study. Eight percent of third graders did not have any recess at all, and by the time kids got to sixth grade, thirteen 13 percent had no scheduled recess period.
The loss of recess was far more prevalent among children of color. According to the National Association for the Education of Young People, 39 percent of African-American children did not have recess, compared to 15 percent% of white children. Also, kids living in poverty experienced vastly less free playtime than kids living above the poverty line.
Dr. Anna Beresin, play expert and author of Recess Battles and The Art of Play, noted that barriers to recess depend on an area’s socioeconomic class. In middle-class schools, recess is usually eliminated for enrichment purposes, like computer class or assemblies. Kids sacrifice playtime to overprogramming, and they tend to be shuttled from one activity to the next.
In working-class schools, like the Philadelphia elementary schools on which Beresin bases her research, recess is removed for social control or punishment. Whether to penalize bad behavior in the classroom or to curb what is seen as unruly play, a common disciplinary measure is to make kids stay inside or stand against the wall, missing out on what might be their only chance to have fun in a protected environment.
Regardless of the reason, taking recess out of the school day causes more harm than good, according to Beresin. “Play is what children do to make sense of the world. It is as vital as air and water, and it is a fundamental children’s right.”
Without recess, kids lose more than the chance to stretch their legs and burn up excess energy. They also miss out on learning leadership, negotiation, and conflict resolution: skills that can be hard to teach in the classroom. There’s also that hard-to-measure factor, joy. No recess means no opportunities to devise wildly imaginative games or engage in a playground culture rich with children’s traditions. Without recess, kids miss the chance, in the middle of a highly regulated school day, to be creative, silly, passionate, and free.
A growing national nonprofit organization, Playworks, is trying to protect the right to play by addressing the reasons schools ditch recess in the first place. Beth Eisen, a representative from Playworks, said that for many schools, this period of free play has turned into a negative experience for both kids and their teachers. The most common struggles are bullying, injuries, and behavioral problems that follow kids from the playground to the classroom. A bad recess doesn’t just contribute to an unhealthy school culture, it can also lead to chronic absenteeism.
“Play is a natural way for kids to develop skills like leadership and inclusion,” Eisen explained. “When [kids’] recess experiences aren’t facilitated so they can join in on others’ play, they don’t feel empowered.”
Playworks helps in several different ways. It provides play coaches who can transform recess by planning games that are open to everyone. It sends site coordinators who teach existing playground staff to make play healthy and fun. And it trains educators to use Playworks’ psychology on an ongoing basis.
When Playworks steps in, children are taught to resolve conflicts using “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” They also gain access to a wealth of inclusive games with enticing titles, like “Alligator Swamp” and “Chi Master.” Anyone who has ever been picked last for a team sport may appreciate that many of the activities facilitated by Playworks are easy for everyone to participate in. And most importantly, no expensive equipment is needed. “Sometimes the school’s play yard is not set up, or there is a shortage of materials,” said Eisen. “But even without equipment, you can be empowered to play hopscotch!”
Playworks is not the only organization dedicated to saving recess. Peaceful Playgrounds, founded by former elementary school principal Dr. Melinda Bossenmeyer, EdD, offers a series of products and programs that help schools fix their dysfunctional recesses. “As a long-time teacher and principal, I can tell you first hand the number of injuries, violent outbursts, and problem behaviors that occur on a weekly basis in schoolyards. I’ve also seen how the lack of physical activity programs can contribute to childhood obesity,” Bossenmeyer stated. “That is what led me to develop Peaceful Playgrounds.”
A Peaceful Playgrounds Recess Program Kit includes online training for instructors, recess toys and equipment, and stencils to help school staff paint multiuse game templates on the blacktop. Sixty-four percent of schools that used the program saw a reduction in bullying, and over half saw fewer visits to the nurse’s office from playground-related injuries.
Still, some experts like Dr. Anna Beresin believe that guided play should not replace recess altogether. Besides being cost-prohibitive for some under-resourced schools like Philadelphia’s, coaching programs can take creative control away from kids. “The chalk is literally in the coach’s hands,” Beresin said. “I don’t think [coaching] is a substitute for allowing children to imagine their own games. But it can help reduce conflict and injury. It would make a good gym or enrichment program.”
One definite positive of recess coaching is that it addresses absenteeism that arises when children fear being bullied or left out on the playground. Beth Eisen recalled an elementary school in Arizona whose chronic absentee rate was often as high as 15 percent. When Playworks helped to make the school’s recess culture more positive, chronic absenteeism fell to around 4 percent. Instead of students feeling pitted against authority figures and each other, everyone was on the same team to take back recess. “A new relationship was created, with the kids,” Eisen said. “They started to realize that their teachers and principals were invested in them.”