Recess is a critical component of a child’s healthy development, yet some teachers continue to withhold it as punishment for bad behavior.
School may be out for summer, but the subject of recess has still been making big news with two very similar bills reaching two very different outcomes in Georgia and New Jersey.
The former failed to pass mandatory recess into law, with the governor claiming doing so would place “unreasonable burdens on educational leaders without meaningful justification.”
However, the latter disagreed, guaranteeing students at least 20 minutes of recess time every single day and restricting the reasons educators can take that recess away.
It was a win for students in New Jersey as the state moves toward legislation in line with what the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has been advocating for years — that recess plays a crucial role in the development and well-being of children.
And New Jersey isn’t the first state to pass this type of law, either.
However, according to parents across the country, many teachers are still using the restriction of recess as punishment despite evidence showing it may be doing more harm than good.
Jessie Staska Walker, a concerned parent, told Healthline that her first grader gets only 10 minutes of recess per day.
“If the class as a whole has a hard time listening that day, the entire class is made to sit out of recess for five minutes,” she said. “I’m against it, but the bigger problem is they only have 10 minutes to begin with.”
Jennifer Lee Towery is a parent and teacher who said, “My very active 4-year-old lost recess at pre-K a few weeks ago. I was really not happy about it. If he deserves punishment, fine. But find another method.”
Attitudes are changing, with Education Week recently reporting the practice of withholding recess as a punishment is declining.
But parents are still reporting it’s happening, especially for kids on the attention deficit spectrum who seem to be losing recess in favor of finishing work they couldn’t complete in class.
“What we’re seeing is a lot of teachers who feel like they have no other tools for dealing with kids who just aren’t finishing their work,” Catherine L. Ramstetter, PhD, school health consultant and co-author of the AAP’s statement on recess, told Healthline.
“They feel like there is no other alternative. They can’t send the student to the principal, because they’ll just be sent right back. Calling the parents doesn’t seem to help. They don’t know what else to do,” she said.
As part of her research, Ramstetter conducted numerous interviews and surveys with teachers. And she empathizes with their struggle: “This is admittedly a challenge. Students need to do their work.”
But she also views taking recess away as a detriment to all involved, pointing out that, “Learners need breaks from cognitive processing.”
Researcher and occupational therapist Monica Jackman, OTD, of Little Lotus Therapy, agrees that recess is a necessity.
“The consistent demand for cognitive focus without adequate breaks for movement and social interaction is anathema to optimal child development,” she said.
But she also thinks those recess breaks are important for teachers, who are facing increased demands to “teach grade-level standards, collect and track child and classroom data, and prepare children for standardized tests.”
She explains this all leads “to a culture of demoralization (decreased ability to access the moral, nonmonetary rewards of teaching), stress, and burnout.”
One of the ways to address that stress, she says, is to provide “opportunities for teachers and students to cultivate connections, mutual respect, and to engage in playful and meaningful interaction.”
The exact type of interactions that can happen more freely on the playground, increasing the “quality of life experiences for both students and teachers.”
The benefits of recess are well documented, showing the many ways playtime helps children develop physically, mentally, socially, and emotionally.
But even in areas where recess is mandated, most kids probably aren’t getting enough of that crucial movement and opportunity for free play.
It’s the combination of both they need to get the best benefits out of recess time.
“Most children do not engage in adequate free play in their days,” Ramstetter said. “Engaging in organized sports or activities can promote physical health, but may not (typically does not) promote creativity, self/child-directed conflict resolution, and rulemaking.”
The AAP currently recommends 60 minutes of free play every day, with most schools only offering 20 to 30 minutes.
According to Ramstetter, when kids don’t get that time they need, they’re more prone to falling off-task, becoming fidgety, daydreaming, producing loud outbursts, and struggling with boredom, fatigue, and physical discomfort.
These are all obviously issues that can affect classroom performance. Ramstetter says the best way to address them is to provide recess.
“Unwanted behaviors might be averted by planning lessons that include student movement and co-learning, such as working in partners,” she added.
However, much of this has to happen at the school level, and Ramstetter recognizes that.
“Teaching is an endeavor that happens largely in isolation to peer professionals. Without the support built in prior to students entering the classroom, each teacher will be left on their own to address issues,” she said.
And that’s where problems seem to arise, where kids seem to lose their recess in absence of teachers seeing a better way.
Districts and school systems can address these struggles by developing firm rules surrounding recess (a culture that respects the benefits of that time) and resources for teachers who may otherwise be at a loss for how to address problem behaviors.
Jackman recommends addressing the root of the issue in these cases rather than taking something away.
She explains that when a child is exhibiting challenging behaviors, removing recess doesn’t work to “remediate the social emotional or self-regulation skill that is lacking and can even serve to decrease intrinsic motivation to change the behavior.”
Instead, she suggests that when a child is behaving inappropriately in the classroom — running around, refusing to do work, or talking too much with their peers, for instance — the teacher should “work with the child to help her engage in problem-solving strategies and supports.”
These supports may include the following:
- Teach kids to ask for timed movement breaks before leaving their desk.
- Give students the opportunity to be the classroom messenger.
- Allow for alternative working positions.
- Allot time for supported learning to develop functional skills through regular, evidence-based practices, like yoga before classroom transitions or a daily brief on focused breathing.
When it comes to incomplete work, nearly all the parents Healthline spoke to said they’d prefer that work be sent home to finish that evening rather than have recess taken away.
But when recess is still being restricted and the parent feels it’s to the detriment of their child, what should they do?
Jackman recommends being proactive about the situation and doing what you can to ensure your child gets that play they need outside of school hours.
“Encourage active, unstructured free play and limit screen time, which is a sedentary activity,” she said.
Ramstetter advises parents to find out what the school’s policy around recess states, and then approach the teacher with your concerns respectfully and constructively.
“Try to get an understanding from the teacher’s perspective as to why your child had the recess taken away. Ask how you, as a parent, can help to address those issues with your child so that they won’t have recess taken away in the future. Then ask the teacher what happens when recess is taken away, what they observe,” she said.
In other words, try to be on your child’s team, together.
“Too often I see parents on one side and teachers on the other,” Ramstetter said. “And that’s not how it should be. In most cases, everyone involved wants what’s best for the child. So ask the teacher where they see your role.”
However, if your best attempts at playing on the same side don’t seem to be getting anywhere and your child is still losing out on recess, she says that may be when it’s time to approach the administration with your concerns.
The vast majority of teachers Healthline spoke to agree that taking away recess is a bad idea all around. Some even admitted to observing for themselves how doing so only made afternoons less productive than the mornings.
Attitudes about recess are changing. More educators are beginning to embrace research and expert advice surrounding the necessity of recess.
But more teachers and parents need to recognize the critical role recess plays in a child’s development, well-being, and the quality of their education.