I don’t know about you, but one of the best parts of my elementary school experience was recess. It is not that I was not academically challenged at school– I certainly was in many cases. I attended K-3 at Murfee Elementary School in Lubbock, Texas, half of 4th grade at a Catholic private school in Columbus, Mississippi, the rest of 4th grade and all of 5th grade at Warden Carden Elementary School in Columbus, and 6th grade at Eugene Field Elementary School in Manhattan, Kansas. (My father was in the Air Force, so we moved a lot.)

At each of these schools, recess was a highlight of my day. I can still remember interactions, people, and situations from recess. I have some memories from classes, but probably more from recess. This fact does not suggest that I was an academic low performer– I think it reflects the importance of recess, likely something true for most learners.

I learned a great deal during recess. Students today are provided with relatively fewer opportunities for unstructured time in their everyday lives, I think. There are many reasons for this, but two of the primary ones are:

  • More structured after-school activities are available today than they were in the mid to late 1970s when I was in elementary school, and today many parents seem to believe part of their parental obligations include getting their children involved in as many extra curricular activities as possible.
  • Teachers and principals in schools today are so test-performance stressed and focused that they have convinced themselves (ridiculously and erroneously) that recess is a frivolity– something that takes away from more important, valuable activities like preparing for the statewide assessment.

According to the National PTA:

Nearly 40 percent of U.S. elementary schools have either eliminated or are considering dropping recess…because of budget concerns and additional standardized testing.

Count recess as yet another casualty on the altar of NCLB high-stakes accountability.

Last year my wife read the book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” by Richard Louv, which makes a persuasive case for providing young people with more unstructured time in natural environments. I have been concerned about this subject for quite awhile. A couple of weeks ago I started a post (that I never finished) titled “Activities as Child Abuse,” and rhetorically asked “At what point do a seemingly unending list of activities for young children become a mechanism for child abuse rather than child development?”

Our own children are very aware of our concerns about the lack of recess at our local elementary school. After 2nd grade, students don’t “officially” get any recess. Two quick stories on this:

  • Buying new tennis shoes for my son last year, I asked him if they would work for PE, recess, and everything he needed to do at school. His response: “We don’t have recess in 3rd grade, Dad, so that won’t be a problem.” My response: We’ll be finding a new school where 3rd graders DO have recess, so don’t worry about that.
  • There are many, many factors that will go into the decision of where we move and live, but schools will be prominent on the list. The previous story got translated interestingly by our kindergarten daughter, however. We received a phone call from another kindergarten parent a few weeks ago, worried because her daughter came home saying that we were moving because Murfee doesn’t have recess in 3rd grade! We are certainly not happy about that policy, but there is much more to our rationale for planning a move….

Here is the bottom line. Our kids and ALL kids need recess. In fact, I contend that ADULTS need recess too, but in most places of work such an idea would be treated with distain. I think there are good physiological and psychological reasons for why we all need a periodic recess. I think innovative companies that really value creativity (Google comes to mind) actually have corporate policies that encourage play and “recess.” Daniel Pink says “play” is one of the essential six skills of the conceptual age. I think he’s right.

Thankfully, when it comes to kids and recess, the national PTA seems to agree with Dan Pink and with me. Let’s get behind their campaign to save recess. Our kids deserve it, and they need it. Our schools must be about so much more than just test prep.

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6 Responses to Let’s fight for recess

  1. I’m with you all the way on this but would add to your list of why schools have eliminated recess. We have had schools in Canada that have eliminated recess because of supervision and behaviour concerns. Principals say they spend too much time dealing with issues that occur during recess.

    This is certainly true and in some cases schools have tried to intervene and built more structure into recess. This would seem to contradict your premise about freedom and play. It seems sad we have to teach kids how to play but partly as a result of our structured society, kids have lots that ability. Getting it back is difficult. The days when mom could tell us to, “go in the yard and play” doesn’t seem to be working anymore.

    You raise some interesting questions.

  2. I’m shocked. Probably the naive, small town Canadian in me. Living in a small town, I still “kick” my own kids outside and tell them to get some fresh air and go play in the yard, ride their bikes on the street (yes, on the street, about 5 cars an hour doesn’t really constitute traffic!)

    I’m even quite surprised by Dean’s comment above. I haven’t heard of schools cancelling recess before. Don’t adult need a break? So why wouldn’t kids need one even more? Especially the kids that are trouble in the classroom, they absolutely need to get out and burn off some steam. Do we really think we are gaining 10 -15 minutes of “productivity” from kids by cancelling their brain down – time? We probably lose more then that by taking it away.

  3. Kevin says:

    I absolutely agree! Recess was a high point in my day during most of my education as well.

    Recess allows kids to get outdoors, burn off some energy, let their minds relax and it gives them a chance to work on important interpersonal skills that they will need to succeed in life. Not everything can be taught in a classroom and neither can it all be taught by the teacher. Some things, working out disagreements on the playground, for example, need to be learned through trial and error. Recess gives them the opportunity to do that. And, if the response isn’t positive, an adult nearby who can intervene and provide the necessary guidance.

    Even in high school, though we didn’t call it recess, we had an extended lunch period that allowed us to get out and refocus, visit with friends, develop social connecdtions and “blow off steam”. Today, the kids in my school aren’t even allowed outside during their 25 minute lunch period! I believe that it is imperative that kids get sunshine and fresh air and be allowed a little bit of “down” time during the day to recharge their batteries. And, I’m convinced that allowing it would minimize behavior problems in the classroom. Kids get restless and that leads to misbehavior.

    The problem, it seems, is that administrators are afraid to let kids — especially teens — roam free. They fear gang trouble, fights, and “lovebirds” getting into more than is permissible on a school campus. Those concerns are not without merit but are as managable today as they were 30 years ago when I was in school. But, it requires effort and involvement by teachers and principals who find it easier to avoid the problem than to manage it appropriately.

  4. James Fryer says:

    I am with you and all the commentators so far, recess is a great part of education. Developing minds (I like to think I am still in that category at 35) need varied stimuli to create new and dynamic connections in the brain. Pouring disconnected facts into children hour after hour in the confines of concrete boxes will not generate clever, insightful adults, but rather mindless automatons.

  5. […] Like Milton, my wife read the book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” by Richard Louv, the same book that inspired him to write this new article. I have written on this topic myself several times, including the post “Let’s Fight for Recess.” I am putting this post in my “Luddite” blog category, because thoughts along these lines can be perceived as anti-technology. I don’t view this line of thinking as anti-technology per se, but more BALANCED in the approaches we take toward education, child development, and life in general. Milton seems to share this view. He writes: Fortunately, there are many organizations, including science centers and museums, zoos and aquaria, local, state, and national parks, environmental-education groups, and 4-H clubs, whose mission is to help children understand the world around them. Although Richard Louv doesn’t address it, the media and technology he blames for contributing to nature-deficit disorder can also be tools for learning about nature. Science and environmental educators have long promoted the use of student versions of the same tools scientists employ, such as temperature probes connected to laptops, global-positioning and geographic-information systems to track species, digital cameras and microscopes, and statistical software to analyze data. […]

  6. brandy symons says:

    My name is Brandy Symons. I am fighting for recess in Lubbock Independent School District. i am really trying to rally parents for this issue. i have done news, radio, and newspaper interviews so you may have heard of me. i am heading up a letter writting campaign right now. i need parents like all of you and your friends. please email me at

    bringbackrecess.lisd@hotmail.com

    i will promptly respond with all of the information of where to send the letter and a template.

    brandy symons

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