3 Ways More Recess Time Could Save Our Schools
by: Jim Urban, LPC.
In the 1980’s I was fortunate to go to a Kindergarten public school in suburban Jacksonville, Florida that had 1 recess hour and 2 additional “play breaks.” My grades during that year were “A’s,” and I felt very confident in my ability to be a good student. I also felt safe and protected by the teachers when children behaved in mean or aggressive ways. The very next year my family and I moved 1,200 miles north to Philadelphia, PA, and I completed first grade in an inner-city school. This school had one 20-minute recess break and no other opportunities for any physical exertion of energy. That year I received mostly “B’s,” and felt less confident in my academic abilities.
I was also one of the only kids in the class that had no interest or desire in being a rebel, and that often excluded us from being in the “in-crowd.” My experiences of recess that year were that I, for the first time, had to watch my back, be wary of my surroundings, and foster a healthy skepticism of playing with other children who often tried to get me to steal, hit other children, or behave naughtily. Thankfully my parents acted quickly to change me to a different school the very next year, and my grades and ability to enjoy recess returned.
Now, as I think back to my 1st grade year, I now feel saddened that so many children find themselves in rough home settings, going to rough schools located in rough neighborhoods, with limited, impoverished resources. Of the many challenges these children face, one challenge that has been imposed onto them by our society is the minimization of the recess hour. We truly have failed 2 generations of children by robbing them of this precious outlet.
I can’t tell you how many kids come to therapy appointments ashamed of themselves for behavior issues in school that could have been dramatically limited, or even eliminated, if they were given more time to do the most important work of childhood: playing and exploring their world. Truly, many of the problems these kids seem to have are partly to blame on their inability to do what they are meant to do in their younger years. As a parent and therapist I am committed to joining the swelling chorus of voices in our society that are demanding that our children be allowed once again to play and just be kids!
So why is play so important, and how does it make a difference in the school environment?
- 1. Play helps children regulate their emotions and behavior. Research has definitely concluded that unstructured, free-play equals better brain, social, emotional, and behavioral development (see sources at the bottom of this article). The more time children can play, the better they will develop skills in creativity, emotion-regulation, negotiating and compromising with others, and problem-solving abilities. Just like adults need breaks every 60-90 minutes, children need breaks from the demands of classroom work in order to regulate themselves. For instance, what’s sometimes misperceived as a child with ADHD may just be a child expressing a need to move about in order to learn more efficiently. What’s often seen as a behavior problem may in fact be a child whose natural energy level doesn’t match the cookie-cutter expectations placed on her. A child who is labeled an “angry kid” may simply be a frustrated kid. Some will probably retort, “Yeah Jim, that’s all good and well, but it’s not a realistic proposal for the realities of our school system.” My response is; yes, it doesn’t match the structure that’s imposed onto teachers, many of whom are likely to agree with me, but that doesn’t mean we should just give up and accept a failing approach to educating children! If we are a democracy, that gives us the privilege and responsibility to hold our leaders accountable for a failing system, and to either advocate for change or vote them out of office and power. Our children mean too much for us to lie down and accept the status-quo.
- 2. Play helps children digest what they are learning. The NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) has an excellent list of several studies that examined various application of play, both in and out of the classroom, that result in more efficient, enduring learning. Not only are many teachers of young children very adept at incorporating play into the classroom (i.e. playdough, singing, educational games, blocks, rice, etc…) but they are cognizant of the benefits of play outside of the classroom as essential to children retaining what is being taught. Have you ever found yourself experiencing “brain overload”? What do you usually do when you experience this? You might take a break, go for a walk, get a cup of coffee, or call a friend. Whether you realize it or not, what you are doing is instinctively trying to regulate your own brain’s ability to receive and store information efficiently. In the same way, children can better retain a 45-minute lesson if they aren’t rushed into another lesson without a break in order to self-regulate. Seriously, couldn’t we just let kids do something as simple as 2 minutes of jumping jacks between lessons? If we go about it intelligently it won’t lead to children derailing the class, as is often the fear, it’ll actually lead to more attentive students. I’ve never understood our society continuing to do the same thing expecting a different result. Isn’t this the definition of insanity?
- 3. Play helps children build healthy self-esteem. The aforementioned NAEYC, along with numerous psychologists and child development experts, have resoundingly concluded that children who have 60 minutes of unstructured play and 30 minutes of adult-led play per day rate higher on scores for self-esteem. What children learn experientially through play are things that can’t be learned pedagogically in the classroom. Play helps children gain experience in:
- Making decisions
- Recognizing limits
- Using their little brains to solve complex problems
- Mastering the playground equipment through practice
- Being in the role of leader and follower
- Learning that their hands and feet have amazing abilities
- Feeling valued when an adult takes the time to play with them, and let them take the lead
- Belonging to a group of people enjoying the same activity together
It’s one thing to help children do written exercises where they write about what makes them special, unique, and talented; it’s another thing entirely for them to experience it and gain an inner confidence in those talents and strengths.
If we want better-behaved, better adjusted, more successful students we must diagnose one of the major causes of the problems in our schools and have the courage, tenacity, and perseverance to demand change! Science and good common sense are screaming the truth to us, that taking away recess, play time, and games in our schools have brought about terrible consequences. Instead of accepting the status-quo, we have ways of advocating for change. Remember, many people told Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that his marches wouldn’t make a difference, and look how that turned out. Many people told Susan B. Anthony that women would never have the right to vote, be paid fair wages, and have rights equal to men, and look at the difference she made. Together we can make a difference, and together we can improve our educational system by bringing back recess!