© Marzanna Syncerz | Dreamstime.com
In the waning days of summer last month, my fifth grader surprised me by stating he was actually “kind of ready” to get back to school. Intrigued, I probed a little further to find out what it was he was looking forward to.
“Recess!” was his reply.
Well, I didn’t exactly expect him to say long division, now did I?
The reason for recess
In reality, there may be more of a connection between recess and long division than you might think. While we tend to consider recess mainly in terms of the energy burn it provides restless young bodies, overwhelming evidence from more than 200 studies suggests that physical activity actually supports learning by increasing the brain’s metabolism and its capacity to store new information.
Recess also provides social and emotional benefits, as it allows children time to establish and nurture friendships, navigate complex social situations, and learn how to resolve conflicts. (Rock, paper, scissors, anyone?)
And, of course, there are the health benefits. Heather Jordan is a mother of three and a health and wellness coach at the Kroc Center. Jordan is an advocate for ample recess time as a way to combat the epidemic of childhood obesity. She pulled her own kids out of a local school where her kindergartner was only getting recess once or twice a week. “Poor diets, coupled with inadequate opportunity for exercise — it’s a recipe for disaster,” she says.
The state of play
Tennessee state law requires schools to provide at least 90 minutes of physical activity every week. But even if schools are hitting that target (and most claim they do, according to state surveys), it still breaks down to just 18 minutes of physical activity during a seven-hour school day, with physical education and in-class movement also counting toward that requirement.
Nationwide, research reveals that as many as one in three students have little to no recess in their school day. And children in high-poverty schools, of which Memphis has more than its share, are four to five times more likely to go without recess than their more advantaged peers.
In my own informal survey of local parents with kids at both public and private schools, I’ve heard tales of indoor recess on perfectly lovely days or recess privileges being taken away as punishment for bad behavior or even academic troubles. In some cases, recess seems to have been squeezed out of the school day altogether, perhaps due to growing pressure to increase test scores.
No play today?
According to a 2009 survey, an overwhelming majority of elementary principals nationwide believe that recess has a positive impact on achievement and learning, as well as kids’ general well-being. So why is recess increasingly becoming an endangered species?
Inadequate or unsafe play spaces, school staffs stretched thin, and behavior issues that arise at recess are all reasons why schools may deprioritize recess. But Bob Nardo, head of Libertas School, the area’s only public, all-Montessori campus, says, “One all-too-common reason children can struggle to focus in the classroom is because we create schedules and structures that suit big people rather than young learners.”
Indeed, lack of time in the school-day schedule is the most frequently cited reason schools give for not providing students with more unstructured time for physical activity. Having watched administrators at my own kids’ school try to fit all the mandatory academic elements into the school-day puzzle, I sympathize with principals who want to give students recess — but just can’t seem to fit it all in.
Advocating for recess
The good news is that a number of organizations have come along recently to advocate for recess. Playworks, a national nonprofit based in Oakland, California, has worked with Aspire Hanley Elementary in Orange Mound and Aspire Coleman Elementary in Raleigh. In addition to providing recess coaches who work directly with low-income schools, Playworks also offers professional development to help teachers better manage recess.
My own journey into the world of recess started before my kids were even in school, when I pitched in to build a new playground at our neighborhood school, Peabody Elementary. The community (not just the school) applied for a grant from KaBoom!, another national nonprofit, and then raised matching funds and recruited more than 200 volunteers to erect the brightly-colored play structure in a single day.
Peabody Elementary’s community-built playground
Taking a stand for play
Of course, no amount of recess coaching or new playgrounds will help until school leaders are convinced that 15 to 30 minutes of daily recess is a good use of precious school-day minutes.
At Peabody, we noticed that, despite the new playground sitting right outside the school’s back door, our kids weren’t getting daily recess. After forming a small group made up of parents, teachers, and administrators to investigate, we discovered that a lack of shade and extra play equipment were part of the problem. Using another KaBoom! grant and additional PTA-raised funds, we were able to add a shade structure over the playground, as well as purchase jump ropes, soccer goals, and balls. But we also needed the school’s 20-minute daily recess policy to be consistently enforced among all classrooms, something that requires sustained vigilance by the principal and periodic nudges from parents.
If you believe your child’s school is giving short shrift to recess, the best thing you can do is — something. Parents often have more influence than they realize. No one is going to be a better advocate for your child’s health and well-being than you.
What Does It Cost?
Peabody Elementary School Playground • 2008
- KaBoom! grant value (equipment & labor): $100,000
- Community raises $10,000 in matching funds & recruits 200 volunteers for build
Shade Structure Added • 2012
- KaBoom! grant value: $25,000
- Community raises $10,000 in matching funds
Additionally, a basketball court is given by an anonymous donor.
Take action & improve recess at your school
Confirm the problem • Talk to your child and other parents to ensure that a no-recess day wasn’t just an isolated incident.
Know your facts • Get up to speed on how play positively impacts learning before you go to make your case. Both Playworks and KaBoom!’s websites offer lots of research on the benefits of play.
Reach out • In the spirit of cooperation, ask your child’s teacher or principal what obstacles they face in making recess happen, you might be surprised by what you learn.
Help out • Can you write a grant for better playground equipment, or organize volunteers to give teachers a break at recess? The school is more likely to take your concerns seriously if you’re willing to pitch in to solve the problem.
Ginger Spickler is the creator of Memphis School Guide, your guide to Memphis & Shelby County K-12 Schools.