Ask adults what their favorite subject in grade school was and often you’ll get “recess.” Yes of course, they also liked the science of erupting volcanoes, reading intriguing stories, and hopefully much more. But young bodies needs to run, play, and shriek. Many adults remember the palpable relief of being liberated from their desks. I am one of them.
You might think that recess is a given for little kids even into middle school. Actually, not so much. Elementary schools always claim to give recess, but researchers found that on a randomly-selected school day, only 79% had recess. Of those, 61% of African-American kids and 75% of other minority students had recess compared with 85% of white children. Merely 56% of kids in poverty were playing. Even at school, kids in poverty can’t cut a break.
An overview of the states show that few require recess. Individual districts can set their own policies. But the internet has pages and pages of complaints about not giving kids some time to themselves. We’re often compared with other countries who give their kids plenty of time off (and have longer, less pressured school days).
So it was with mild fanfare that Rhode Island’s Legislature managed to pass a bill that requires elementary schools to give kids at least 20 minutes of daily recess. Lest you think this new law would affect a mere handful of buildings, only 18% were already doing this, according to data collected by Recess for Rhode Island, an advocacy group. The data also shows that school play spaces are often inadequate and lacking equipment. Few schools have good indoor options. Recess has indeed withered.
How on earth did kids lose their right to a break?
Usually the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), 2001, is blamed for the incredible shrinking recess. Across the nation, school staff alleged that testing required endless test-prep that took time away from everything else. NCLB demanded that all students be proficient in English and math as of 2014 — a stupid, impossible goal.
Still, threatened with sanctions, schools shaved time off wherever they could. Any mom could have told you that tedious, mind-numbing test-prep wouldn’t produce sparkling results. And it didn’t. So maybe beleaguered schools were taking their frustration out on the kids. Everyone was having less fun; cutting recess just made it official.
But another factor at work might have been to use NCLB as an opportunity to limit kids’ freedom to be naughty at school. Many parents and teachers believe that free play leads directly to bullying, for example. But the Alliance for Childhood, among many others, have evidence that free play is precisely where and when kids learn social skills, including the need to curb aggression. If recess erupts with unwanted behavior, bad on the adults who aren’t monitoring the inevitable disputes that erupt among kids. Socially-savvy adults on the playground can distinguish between kids’ natural process of learning to sort out their differences and aggression that needs adult intervention. No one can learn how to handle their social world until they experience conflict and learn to respond to it both responsibly and effectively.
Punishing kids by benching them at recess is super controlling.
The original version of Rhode Island’s legislation, written by the recess advocates, prohibited withholding recess as punishment. Sadly, punishment is still the go-to technique for curbing misbehavior, even though a preponderance of evidence argues that punishment doesn’t work. Bad kids just get badder. But the original mandate was rendered toothless to accommodate those who complained that withholding recess was a valuable tool for managing behavior.
The bill now asks school staff to try other options first. Recess for RI’s data showed that fully 70% of the schools say they withhold recess for disciplinary reasons. So, specifically those kids who most need to run and shriek are parked along some fence, usually for all to see, as if that would motivate anyone to behave in the classroom.
C’mon, who doesn’t need a break in their day? Walking down the hall and having a chat with a co-worker is good for your mental health. Everyone needs a mental pause to perform at their best. Everyone needs to interact with others socially. Everyone needs some physical activity if only stretching. And children’s bodies especially are little dynamos.
Who have we become as a culture that the kids need the full force of state law to get 20 minutes off? Still, some recess-deprived kids will finally get a break. Thank God.