What I remember about elementary school, before spelling bees or Tuesday chicken nuggets, before the school’s beloved art teacher or canine mascot, is the freedom of recess. Fields of blowing dandelion fuzz; daydreaming in the tire pit; playing Four Square. And perhaps, above all, the joy of the swings, the relished feeling of boundlessness wrapped up in the rushing wind, the ticklish thrill in the chest and the exhilarating sweep toward the sky.
Beyond reminding me that recess was a relished escape from sitting at a desk, these recollections share a connection to a specific kind of identity formation that happened, almost exclusively, at recess: how I learned, through unstructured play, to make friends, resolve disputes, appreciate nature, and release some of their naturally driven energy. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had, and still have, ADD. And, if I didn’t have recess, I would have had an extremely hard time getting through the day and concentrating on much of anything.
Recess is not sacrosanct. Due to shrinking budgets and an increased focused on high-stakes standardized tests, many American elementary schools are reducing recess time or eliminating it entirely. Last year, when a group of Florida parents pushed for legislation to require recess in elementary school, the Florida Senate refused to take the bill to the floor. Only 22 percent of American school districts require daily recess, according to a study reported in the Washington Post that looked at nationwide policies during the 2011-2012 school year. Fewer than half of those schools required recess to be at least 20 minutes long.
This is a shame. Recess is crucial to children’s development, and not just for those, like myself, with attention disorders. As adults, many of us value downtime in our workday, making it a priority to take a walk at lunch, get an afternoon coffee, or, if we’re lucky, go for a bike ride or swim. In many schools in Finland and Japan, by comparison, children get 10-to-15 minute breaks every hour. Without guaranteed unstructured time during the day, children have little opportunity to unwind and take restorative mental breaks.
In a 2013 policy statement published in the journal Pediatrics, pediatricians from the AAP acknowledged the importance of having a scheduled break in the school day. It is important not just as a physical outlet, but as a way to practice conflict resolution, interact with peers, solve problems, cope with stress, and develop crucial social and emotional skills.
As Robert Murray, a pediatrician and professor of human nutrition at the Ohio State University who is a co-author of the statement, is quoted as saying in Time Magazine, “Children need to have downtime between complex cognitive challenges. They tend to be less able to process information the longer they are held to a task. It’s not enough to just switch from math to English. You actually have to take a break.”
Better classroom behavior is another perk. A study of more than 11,000 eight- and nine-year-olds, led by pediatric researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York City, showed that kids who had at least 15 minutes of recess a day behaved better in class. The typical attention span or a 6 or 7-year old is 30 minutes, according to Romina Barros, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center in Brooklyn and the co-author of the study. If children get a chance to rest their brains, they are less likely to drift off or act out, and thus, better equipped to absorb new information.
Drs. Murray and Barros are at the forefront of a burgeoning field of research on play. Their work, and related studies in early childhood and pediatric journals, distinguish recess from the kind of regimented activity stressed in gym class and after school activities. Free, unstructured play, rather than, say, a swim lesson or relay race, is important as it allows children to choose what they want to do, without adults providing the direction and wagging their fingers at missteps.
In addition to offering children a much-needed cognitive interlude, recess is an effective way to keep kids active. A study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that 42 percent of the nation’s schoolchildren get most of their total daily exercise at recess—more than in gym class or after-school programs. The AAP recommends 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day, and suggests that recess can help achieve those goals.
The AAP’s expressed support for recess and the aggressive advocacy of groups such as the National PTA, the National Association for Elementary School Principals, the National Association for Sport and Physical Association, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be shifting the winds of a trend toward reducing or eliminating recess that gained ground following the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, and is especially problematic among minority children in urban schools that may not have playgrounds.
One advocacy group, Peaceful Playgrounds, launched a national Right to Recess that provides resources for parents and teachers to urge their schools, districts, or state education offices to protect recess. The campaign includes downloadable PowerPoint presentations and studies to support the argument. Efforts like this are an encouraging sign, as are the Chicago Public Schools’ reinstatement of recess several years ago at the outcry of outraged parents, the victory of striking Seattle teachers who made guaranteed recess for all students a sine qua non at the bargaining table, and the inspired grassroots efforts of motivated parents like Rebecca Lamphere, who founded the Recess Support Network, which is now active in 35 states, including New York.
We can only hope such hopeful work will gain momentum and place recess in the same untouchable category as math or reading. Recess is not a “wish-list” item. It is part of a child’s healthy development.