Seeing benefits, a school expands recess

Depriving young children of playtime may be detrimental to their learning, and not just their social-emotional learning, which is coming under a brighter spotlight these days as kids are leaving school more and more without the important skills of empathy and cooperation.


Recess at Lake Otis Elementary School, Anchorage, Alaska (Travis / Flickr Creative Commons)

So early childhood teachers at Eagle Mountain Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas, signed on to a program developed by a kinesiologist at Texas Christian University after she visited schools in Finland. The program increased the amount of recess students get each day from 20 minutes to 60 minutes, given in four 15-minute recesses.

The teachers quoted in a piece by KERA (NPR), Cathy Wells and Donna McBride, have more than 60 years of teaching experience between them. After the change, they say their classrooms have been transformed: kids are using pencils to write, instead of chewing on them; they’re less distracted and make better eye contact; they tattle less.

As a result, Ms Wells says her students are “way ahead of schedule” halfway through the school year. She may have had initial nervousness about cutting out so much time for classroom instruction, but when kids get a break in between classroom learning, it turns out their brains cement that learning into place much better.

It’s still too early to tell what test scores will show at Eagle Mountain or at any other school using the program developed by Debbie Rhea of Texas Christian (schools are using it in Texas, California, and Oklahoma). But anecdotal accounts of first-grade teachers are often more telling than standardized test scores, anyway, so that’s where I put my money.

Their hunch that the extra recess time is making education better for her students is backed up by research. Cited in the article is a study by Ohio State University pediatrician Bob Murray.

“If you want a child to be attentive and stay on task, and also if you want them to encode the information you’re giving them in their memory, you’ve got to give them regular breaks,” NPR quoted him as saying, referring to a body of research he has compiled on the subject. He said brain imaging has shown that kids learn better after a break for physical activity and unstructured play.

The journal Pediatrics published his follow-up study entitled “The Crucial Role of Recess in School” in 2013:

Recess is at the heart of a vigorous debate over the role of schools in promoting the optimal development of the whole child. A growing trend toward reallocating time in school to accentuate the more academic subjects has put this important facet of a child’s school day at risk. Recess serves as a necessary break from the rigors of concentrated, academic challenges in the classroom. But equally important is the fact that safe and well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it. Recess is unique from, and a complement to, physical education—not a substitute for it. The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.

The trend in the US may be in the reverse direction, as schools try to get more testing and test prep in for kids. But evidence suggests taking away or reducing recess time may be counterproductive.

Evidence also comes from Finland, as Ms Rhea found, where test scores in academic subjects are fine and kids get lots more recess time than those in America. That evidence may show a mere correlation, not causation, but causation is difficult to prove with human subjects, because there are so many other variables that affect the outcomes.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.