A diametrically opposed pair of trends collided in recent decades: At the same time as more and more American classrooms saw recess vanish from their daily schedules, researchers found more and more evidence to show that this was a big mistake. The future of recess—and the future of education—is free play.
The strategic approach of cutting PE and recess in an effort to improve test scores is misguided. More desk time is counterproductive when it comes to academic performance.
The impulse to cut recess from the school day is not hard to grasp. Between 40 and 60 percent of first-year college students require remedial classes in English, math or both.
And despite a decades-long effort to make students more competitive with their counterparts abroad, the most recent results from the Program for International Student Assessment showed that American teens hadn’t improved in reading or math since 2000. In light of this data, educators feel enormous pressure to slash anything perceived to be fat.
But it turns out that eliminating recess to devote even more time to classes and test prep is exactly the wrong approach. The likely culprit in US students’ continued underwhelming performance? The rigid test-first approach to education dictated by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act before its replacement in 2015.
We’ve Been Measuring the Wrong Things
Part of the problem may well be the very perception that American education is in crisis. As a number of academics have begun to show, this idea has been pervasive for decades, and often doesn’t bear scrutiny.
“This rhetoric has been galvanizing for highly interventionist reform efforts. Every year, billions of federal and philanthropic dollars are channeled into school reform, and every president since George H. W. Bush has made education an administrative priority,” writes Jack Schneider in the Washington Post. Schneider, Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and the author of Beyond Test Scores: A Better Way to Measure School Quality, argues that the rhetoric has outpaced reality.
Schneider’s book calls for a complete revamping of school quality metrics, with a new system that focuses on the deeper purpose and goals of education rather than standardized test results. But he points out that even by the crude metrics contained in a half century of statistics from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and a long history of parental surveys, most US schools are “better than ever.” Indeed, the NAEP’s ongoing “Nation’s Report Card” assessments show slight improvement over the last three decades among 4th and 8th graders in history, English, civics and geography—and significant improvements in math. Results for 12th graders are flat or slightly lower, but hardly a picture of a system in crisis.
Unstructured Playtime is Essential
As an array of pediatricians, developmental psychologists and assorted academics have demonstrated, cutting recess to increase time in classroom seats preparing for tests represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation at hand. Unstructured playtime isn’t merely fun. Recess has been shown to improve brain function, development of social skills, flexibility and coordination. It leads to lower incidence of childhood obesity, better cardiovascular function, strengthening of bones and stress relief. These benefits don’t just result in a healthier child—they improve academic and athletic performance.
“Children need to have downtime between complex cognitive challenges,” writes Robert Murray, a pediatrician and coauthor of an American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement published in the journal Pediatrics. “They tend to be less able to process information the longer they are held to a task. It’s not enough to just switch from math to English. You actually have to take a break.”
Some educators say that physical education classes obviate the need for recess. But studies show that kids need unstructured physical activity, and the social, emotional and physical benefits that it confers, in addition to the physiological benefits of exercise. And beyond increased well-being, as Hall of Famers like Wayne Gretzky, Pelé and Jerry Rice attest in Gabe Polsky’s 2018 documentary In Search of Greatness, creative breakthroughs in organized sports are rooted in the skills honed during unstructured time on the block and in the schoolyard. In sum, kids need to just play.
In the past decade, nearly 50% of the country’s school districts have completely eliminated or reduced time for recess.
Recess Before Lunch
Look for the growing body of research on the benefits of recess to be more widely adopted. A sea change will occur, resulting in at least 20 to 30 minutes of free play per day in the near term, and 60 minutes or more in the long term. More schools will join the trend of having recess before lunch, a move that’s led to healthier eating and a cascade of related benefits in hundreds of schools throughout the country. Increasingly, states will bar teachers from denying recess in cases of misbehavior. And perhaps most urgently, the schools will recognize that months of isolation during COVID-19 has amounted to a profound trauma for many students. The social, emotional and physical benefits of once again playing together must be and will be acknowledged and embraced.
The Future Is Already Here Dep’t
In 2012 a Texas Christian University professor named Debbie Rhea traveled to Finland to find out why the country’s education results were so consistently excellent, and found that Finnish schools mandated 15 minutes of free play every hour of the school day. In 2014 she launched the North Texas Triple-Recess Experiment, a program featuring four recess periods a school day. Today the program, run by TCU and renamed LiiNK, has expanded into Oklahoma, with participating schools reporting 40 percent improvements in focus, and a 24 percent difference in obesity rates over three years between kids in the program (-7 percent) and kids not in the program (+17 percent).
Arizona passed a law in 2018 mandating two recess periods for schoolkids. Test scores went up, disciplinary incidents decreased and school attendance improved. Connecticut mandated a minimum of 50 minutes of recess for the 2019–2020 school year.
Indoors, Outdoors and Options for All abilities
Environmental benefits and conservation values have been integrated into recess as playground equipment evolves to become safer and more creative. Play structures generate electricity, and gardening is recognized as a physical activity. Recess offers both indoor and outdoor options so kids who don’t like or can’t go outside for long periods of time have choices. Kids naturally bond with like-minded kids and find their areas of play. Recess also becomes inclusive, with age-appropriate equipment, sensory activities and options for kids of all abilities. Teachers and volunteers work specifically on designing and facilitating recess, much as PE teachers work on games and fitness.
Unstructured Time is the Norm
The all-outdoor education trend has expanded for preschools and kindergartens to the point where unstructured time is the norm and “class time” takes a back seat. Outdoor education that takes place in municipal, state and national parks has also become a larger component of the curriculum at elementary and middle schools as the value of nature as a learning center goes mainstream.
In the aftermath of COVID-19, recess all but disappeared from the school day. Educators felt pressured to make up for lost time, and temporary moves instituted during the pandemic—the cancelation of outdoor free play, namely—settled into habit.
Old attitudes proved hard to shift, and many educators failed to get on board with the prorecess research, either through lack of knowledge or fear of change to the curriculum. Many still saw recess as a privilege, not a necessity, and as a consequence, school boards continued to put more money into academics and less into physical activity. As recess budgets dropped, there weren’t enough teachers and volunteers even to maintain the amount of recess students already had. With diminished recess, the gap between rich and poor increased because private schools could afford to offer more outdoor time.