Whatever Happened to Recess?

Recess for American students seems to be going the way of the dodo. Back in the halcyon days when I was in elementary school in the 1970s in northern California, I remember having a 20-minute recess midway through the morning, a half-hour recess after lunch and another 15- or 20- minute recess in the afternoon for a whopping total of at least 65 minutes of recess. When I was in fifth grade, we moved to Oakland and, while we still had the 30-minute post-lunch recess, the morning and afternoon ones were only 10 minutes long, for a total of 50 minutes of recess.

65 minutes of recess, 50 minutes of recess: These are shocking figures compared to the 26 minutes of recess per day that American kids average, according to an op-ed in the New York Times by author David Bornstein. Even though, as he writes “there is strong evidence that school-based physical activity improves children’s cognitive skills, concentration and behavior, possibly by influencing their brain’s physiology,” recess has been getting progressively shorter over the years, as school districts have sought to maximize instruction time. 

Furthermore, almost 90 percent of disciplinary problems occur during recess, lunch or the transition periods before and afterwards:

Principals say recess is not what it used to be. Many children spend much of their time in the schoolyard standing around idly or playing free-for-all games that get out of control. Recess has always been a time of teasing, bullying and scraped knees, but principals report that injuries and fights in elementary schools are more prevalent and more serious than in the past.

“Recess is meaner than it used to be,” one Oakland principal told me. That’s why some educators have decided they can do without it. Others have instituted “zero tolerance” no-fighting policies, with mandatory suspensions for schoolyard altercations, sending home perpetrators — predominately African American boys — who are as young as six years old. Others have dealt with the problems by banning games like tag.

Bornstein proposes that, in order to provide kids with enough stamina to help them sit in their seats and focus, play is needed. A positive change that schools can make is to offer students more structured play. He notes one nonprofit that provides this:

One approach that has been advanced successfully comes from an Oakland-based nonprofit organization called Playworks, which operates in nearly 250 urban schools serving low-income students in 15 cities and has a long waiting list of principals who are willing to spend $25,000 to bring the program to their schools. One Baltimore principal told me: “I will get rid of the computer room before I get rid of this program.”

Playworks sends trained, full-time play coaches into schools who organize an array of play opportunities for children during recess and lunch, as well as in class and after school. The coaches — typically recent college graduates who are delighted to come to work in sneakers every day — become like faculty members. The kids call them by their first names — “Coach Joe” or “Coach Eunice,” for example — and teachers say they often become the most popular adults in the school.

Perhaps such programs seem over-protective and stifling of children’s creativity. But, for more than a few school districts, organized play is far better than disorderliness and discipline problems. 

Certainly my own son Charlie would not do well in school without having his time at his desk interspersed with physical activity. Charlie attends a county autism center in New Jersey; he has done well in his time there, in no small part because the school is located in a huge building and he’s able to go for walks and even runs (they have a track) no matter what the weather. Prior to being at this center, Charlie was in a special education classroom located in a public middle school where he had gym once a day at 8:30am. He floundered at the school for a number of reasons, but one was that he had very limited physical activity and at a time when he was becoming an adolescent with a changing body. As a middle school, there was no recess and certainly no playground; on the occasions when I stopped into the school, I often detected a bit of sadness among the students, rushing so seriously from class to class. Recess was a far away memory.

Bornstein also notes that kids today just don’t get outside enough and, when they do, it’s in adult-organized activities. Today’s children spend six or severn hours with “personal use media;” young people between the ages of 10 to 16 “engage in vigorous activity for only 12.6 minutes per day — nowhere near the 60 minutes that the surgeon general recommends.”

It has been said before, but we appear to be on our way to raising a nation of electronic-gadget-dependent couch potatoes. Sure we want to teach kids to sit and focus but maybe we also need to start teaching them to run around in the sunshine and, well, to play.

Photo by  carlos.a.martinez.


peggy sue turner
peggy-sue turner6 years ago

its not just the us, here in nanaimo we just witnessed the demise of recess. this is going too far, how many more ways can they find to tell kids they arnt worth our time?

Delana Darrow
Delana Darrow6 years ago

recess is very much needed for kids it helps promote physical activity and gives them a much needed break .

Lika S.
Lika P6 years ago

This country as a whole, including (or maybe especially) the school system wants our kids to grow up, be mature, and learn independence. And this is starting very early, even in 1st & 2nd grades. It's disturbing. I say let kids be kids a bit more, the fresh air will do them good, focus on learning, not independence, and everyone will be better off for it. The maturity will come naturally with time. We have the rest of our lives to be old and grown up. Why not enjoy youth while it's still here? There is no rush to make tomorrow happen sooner.

April Thompson
April Thompson6 years ago

Recess is very important! Maybe more recess less behavior issues?! Just a thought!

Anne Brabson
Anne B6 years ago

When I began teaching elementary school in the mid 80s, kids at our school had 15 minutes of recess in the morning, 30 minutes before lunch and another 15 minutes in the afternoon. There were some problems, to be sure, but few that were serious in terms of discipline issues as I remember. Now my second grade students get a grand total of 30 minutes altogether before lunch and there are many, many problems with fighting, physical injuries from rough housing and teasing/taunting. I believe students NEED a break from classroom activities, especially in light of the increased pressures of frequent and deadly serious testing, but safety and social issues must be addressed. Structured playtime might well help, but budget cuts have really limited resources for ample adult supervision, playground equipment (jumpropes, balls, etc.). Lack of respect for authority figures on the playground is a serious problem as well-and sending students to the office isn't always the answer either, for a variety of reasons...There aren't easy answers , I don't believe, but we are definitely short changing kids when they can't have a chance to run around, play some games and talk to friends safely and without fear for safety...

Norma V.
Norma Villarreal6 years ago

Recess could be a time for physical and mental activities. Get rid of excess energy that leads to discipline problems in the classroom with structured activities.

Geraldine H.
Gerri Hennessy6 years ago

Kids need a time to relax and have fun ...

Shelly Peterson
Shelly Peterson6 years ago

Recess is also akin to P.E. and Social time...without those elements, where is the balance, in today's demands, not only on our children, but us!?!?...Thankyou, Dr. Chew!!!...You are always so "on point!"!

Dean P.
Dean P6 years ago

Kids need them breaks throughout the day it is healthy for them in so many ways.

Jessica Crane
Jessica Crane6 years ago

Interesting. In junior school (I live in the UK) I had a total of 90 minutes undisturbed 'play time'. In secondary school and sixth form I now have 80 minutes, which still seems a lot but is mostly taken up by extra compulsary lessons. I think that kids need some time out to let their brains rest!