Is Recess Making a Comeback in US Schools?

For the first time in three decades, school kids in Chicago will enjoy something many others take for granted: recess. Although adults who only hazily recall their own school years might be surprised to learn this, Chicago’s policy on eliminating that free time during the day isn’t unusual — and was even common in many school districts around the country even before the introduction of the No Child Left Behind Act made every second of the school day a precious commodity.

But with emerging research showing that a break during the day could lead to improved academic outcomes — making recess anything but a waste of time — Chicago could be only the first of many school districts giving recess another look, writes Nicholas Day in Slate.

Although no exact numbers exist, the time spent in recess has been shrinking over the last few decades. Schools have replaced time spent outside playing with time spent inside tackling an extra math problem or two. The decline of recess was even more pronounced in schools catering to students from lower-income families as eager school leaders decided that the time could be better spent combating the achievement gap.

 The numbers show a clear trend: The more minority students a school has, and the lower the income level of their parents, the less time allotted for recess—nearly half of poor children go all day without it. They don’t even have anywhere to have it: In Chicago, nearly 100 elementary and middle schools have no playgrounds at all. (The American Association of Pediatrics recently issued an impassioned statement on the “play deprivation” experienced by children in poverty.)

Arguments offered against recess are so deceptively logical that no one felt inclined to offer a counterpoint. As a matter of fact, the sentiment expressed by the Superintendent of the Atlanta Public School System — that student achievement didn’t arise out of time spent on monkey bars — was welcomed rather than scorned. Lately, however, there has been a marked shift in opinion on the usefulness of recess in light of findings that the later in the day that a break is introduced, the more students lose the ability to maintain focus and concentration, and that physical activity and free time might actually boost academic achievement.

They are more focused on days when they have recess. A major study in Pediatrics found that children with more than 15 minutes of recess a day were far better behaved in class than children who had shorter recess breaks or none at all.

They’ll get more out of class, too: Children seem to learn more efficiently when information is spaced out—when it is distributed over time. It’s been widely documented that the brain needs a break. High-performing East Asian schools have famously long school days—but much of the extra time is taken up by recess, not instruction. Which might be why recess is now back, even in places like Atlanta (although it is squeezed for time).

Still, for all the benefits, the idea of recess is slow to win adherents among those in the K-12 trenches: school principals and teachers. For most, it is the practical considerations that keep them unenthusiastic. Keeping kids in line during a period that is supposed to be free takes manpower and effort that schools, already pinched for both, aren’t eager to expand. Schools officials from districts like Chicago, where the recess has been out of favor for so long, are frank in expressing their fear in dealing with the chaos.

So, for many schools, that means reinvention. No more hoards of children running around the playground, making their own entertainment, using the opportunity to get into mischief. Recess now means strict supervision, prescribed sports activities, and no time to swing freely on the monkey bars.

Whether these kinds of breaks bring the same benefits the less structured way to spend time did is still in question.