A version of this piece originally ran in January 2011's East Side Monthly print and online editions. This version is similar but a bit longer and with linked resources.
Recess, Play, and Learning
More often than not, in response to “Hey guys, what happened at school today,” recess is my elementary school-aged kids’ number one topic. Their daily 10 minutes of recess often results in 10 minutes of real-time recess retelling. Eventually, until I found ways to ask the right questions about math, science, reading, art, library and other learning opportunities they might have experienced between 9:00 am and 3:00 pm, this apparent recess fixation troubled me. Was recess the only aspect their days (aside from gym, another topic discussed with wild enthusiasm) that my kids valued? However, I no longer interpret their passion for recess as a devaluation of the other 350 minutes of their school days. Quite the opposite: without those 10 minutes, they and their peers would likely get far less out of the rest of the school day. Their animated retelling of those action-packed minutes on the playground contrasts starkly with the larger reality of many schools, in which recess clings to a tenuous existence. In Providence and across urban school districts nationwide, recess has become a scare commodity that kids need more than ever.
This didn’t happen because adults decided, Scrooge-style, to take all the fun out of kids’ lives. The educators with whom I’ve talked about this understand comprehensively that kids need some “down time” to be at their best. To provide 10 minutes of recess, school administrators, teachers, aides, and other adults in charge of the school day face significant obstacles. The most pressing is the challenge of the clock. State and district mandates for formal, structured teaching and learning occupy most of the available 360 minutes of the standard elementary school day. There’s a whole lot to cover, learn and get through, and in most schools, educators feel fierce pressure to accomplish that within relatively few hours. Most teachers and administrators are well aware of the tension between fulfilling academic requirements and creating the opportunities for playtime that allow kids to recharge and refocus. I commend them for preserving any amount of playtime during the school day, as well as finding ways to infuse fun and elements of play within their curriculum and pedagogy.
I acknowledge that the young people in your lives may not be as recess-obsessed as mine. And of course my kids express high regard for science experiments, field trips, and engaging math, reading, and other classroom-based experiences. What your kids discuss at your dinner table may vary. What don’t vary are those necessities that recess and, ideally, other aspects of kids’ days ought to fulfill: physical movement, conflict resolution, play, creativity, and autonomy. Schools often find ways to infuse play into teaching and learning in ways that clearly benefit most kids academically and developmentally. That’s essential, but it’s not the same as unstructured, unenforced, undirected, and unevaluated down time. Generally speaking, kids are better off as a result of the few minutes that they run around or otherwise let off steam on most days. As documented in "School Recess and Group Classroom Behavior," published in the February 2009 volume of Pediatrics, the American Association of Pediatrics’ journal, when kids have time for recess—at least 15 minutes per day—there’s a clear correlation between unstructured play and academic achievement.
Obviously, recess as traditionally understood and practiced is not always paradise. Some schools do not have safe outdoor or indoor space. Other schools lack the resources required to supervise kids properly, which can result in injuries and anti-social behavior. And others mistreat recess, using it as a punitive measure by withholding it when kids make poor behavioral decisions (sadly, that is when they often most urgently need a short break to refocus and regroup). Under these circumstances, coupled with mandates about how time needs to be used during the school day, making already endangered recess extinct can seem like the most reasonable option.
Fortunately, some schools are focusing on finding ways to incorporate the benefits of recess in new ways. Some have opted for forms of structured recess that use the services of a “recess coach” who provides organized games and activities to keep kids active with fewer possibilities of injury or conflict. While cost and lack of self-structured imagination-driven downtime make this a difficult option for many schools, it’s a choice that is working well in some situations. (For more on recess coaches and related resources, check out Playworks, a national organization dedicated to connecting opportunities for fun and learning in children’s lives.)
Other schools take a more organic approach, finding ways to build clear connections between play and learning with the understanding that play is a main way that kids process what they’re learning and the challenges they’re facing. For a beautiful, detailed portrait of attention to play and its role in meaningful teaching and learning, treat yourself to Playing for Keeps: Life and Learning on a Public School Playground, by Deborah Meier, Brenda S. Engel, and Beth Taylor (Teacher College Press, 2010). Playing for Keeps provides a detailed and rich portrait of the cognitive and social value of play at Mission Hill School, a public elementary and middle school in Boston, and offers thoughtful ways for adults and kids to integrate play and learning with a particular focus on outdoors discovery and the delights of kids imaginations.
Ultimately, because more instructional time, however necessary, cannot come at the costs of what makes instruction effective, we need systemic changes that will allow play and learning to coexist in mutually beneficial ways. An expanded school day, sometimes described as extended learning time, is one such option that is beginning to gain some traction in Rhode Island (head up: this links to a useful policy brief from Rhode Island After School Plus Alliance that's in PDF form). Under the right conditions, which must include adequate funding to pay educators for their additional time, a more comprehensive school day can add tremendous benefit to kids’ learning and lives, especially when it provides a variety of school- and community-based options for learning and engagement. Many kids with whom I have spoken would gladly trade more time in school overall for a pace that allows more breathing room. Let’s listen to them and act accordingly to create better conditions for teaching and learning.