Teaching Kids How To Play at Recess

Snapshots of life at home.
Aug. 29 2012 3:30 AM

The Rebirth of Recess

How do you introduce recess to kids who have never left the classroom?

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.

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.)

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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.

That’s the twist in this rebirth-of-recess narrative: In part because of these fears, recess in many schools is now a very different beast. It’s more structured and sports-focused, less dreamy and aimless. Whether it leads to the same cognitive and social benefits is an open question. The nonprofit organization Playworks puts full-time “recess coaches” in low-income schools—currently they’re in 387 schools in 23 cities—who teach children how to play: They organize games; they model how to resolve disputes (rock-paper-scissors); they try to get kids more active and engaged. (A recent study found that schools with Playworks reported less bullying and better behavior.)

“Recess has changed because the times we live in have changed,” says Playworks CEO Jill Vialet. Children no longer know how to play, she says; they don’t run around after school with all the kids on their block. “What we’re doing is creating just enough structure. That same structure that was created by the older kids in the neighborhood in times past—we’re creating that now on the schoolyard.”

Playworks doesn’t make kids play, Vialet says, and the recess coach doesn’t run recess. “There’s multiple things happening on the schoolyard at any given point. The coach floats around the schoolyard.” But the Playworks vision of recess—more structured, more orderly, more active—is very different from the traditional anything-goes break from class.

Recess may look problematic to the grown-ups, but for Pellegrini, the value of recess is that the children, not the adults, are in charge. It may not look pretty, but that’s the point. “A very important part of what kids do on the playground is social competence—that is, they learn how to get along with others,” he says. “You have to cooperate, you have to use language, you have to compromise. And that’s not trivial. That is huge, in terms of both academic success and success in life.”

And despite the fears of many administrators, who talk about recess as if it were a Lord of the Flies sequel, studies have shown that there is surprisingly little violence on playgrounds, says Pellegrini: “It accounts for less than 2 percent of all behavior.”

For someone like Pellegrini, the structured recess of PlayWorks is anathema—the value of recess is in messy free play. For the principals in Playworks schools, structured recess is a godsend—precisely because it isn’t messy.

My childhood memory of recess—as a break that came twice a day, like a natural phenomenon, and that was wonderfully aimless—may be nothing like the recess my children will someday have. The argument over whether to have recess may be ending. But the argument over what recess means is only now beginning. Can we give kids today the freedom to play? Or do we need a pedagogy of recess—a pedagogy of free time? The answer may depend on what we value most, or what we can afford to value most: order or chaos, activity or daydreaming, learning to play or learning to be.

Nicholas Day's book on the science and history of infancy, Baby Meets World, was published in April 2013. Follow him on Twitter.

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