Every schoolchild who’s ever squirmed in his seat, anxious for recess to arrive, can sympathize with students in Chicago. This year, many public schools in that city are scheduled to have recess for the first time in three decades. Chicago’s long recess drought isn’t unusual. Even before No Child Left Behind, recess was an endangered species. Since NCLB, every minute of the school day has been scrutinized for its instructional value—and recess, a break from instruction, often didn’t survive the scrutiny. It was, by definition, a waste of time.
But while administrators were trying to get rid of recess, academics were studying it—that is, they were studying the time when children weren’t studying. The new science of recess says that recess isn’t a waste of time at all. “Having recess is much, much, much better than not having recess,” says Anthony Pellegrini, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota who’s written extensively on the subject. “That’s unequivocal, I feel. That’s a no-brainer.” That’s good news for children in Chicago squirming in their seats. But what does recess look like when no schoolchild has ever had it before?
It’s an ironic turn of events: For years, schools have been getting rid of recess to spend more time on math and reading. It is notoriously hard to get reliable numbers on recess—recess policies vary from year to year, school to school, even classroom to classroom—but numerous surveys have found recess time declining. That’s especially true in poorer school districts, where test scores are frequently low and principals panicked. 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.)
The arguments against recess are simple and no-nonsense, especially for these schools: What—you want the kids to play kickball when they’re failing math? When the Atlanta public schools got rid of recess, its superintendent famously said, “We are intent on improving academic performance. You don't do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars."
These arguments work, Pellegrini says, “because attacking recess has got this sort of intuitive feel: If you give kids more time doing something, they’ll do better in school. When in fact the opposite is probably the case.” Repeated studies have shown that when recess is delayed, children pay less and less attention. 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).
Despite the cognitive and social benefits of recess, principals still hate it: In the scholarship on recess, they inevitably describe their recess periods as total chaos. In Chicago, recess has been out of the schools so long that principals are nervous about having it back.