Last year when my husband and I attended our son’s kindergarten conference, much of the discussion was focused around his inability to sit still and stay on task. It was then that we learned, halfway through the school year, that Miles wasn’t getting recess every day. “We try to get outside, but we just have so much work to do,” the teacher mentioned casually when we asked the teacher to explain. The more I kept track of it by asking Miles, the more it turned out to be more like two or three times a week, not every day as it was listed on the schedule, as I had assumed it to be. And this teacher couldn’t figure out why this five-year-old was having discipline issues?
My husband and I danced the delicate dance of trying to find ways to let our expectation be known without, as my husband kept reminding me, “telling the teachers how to do their jobs.” I mentioned on several occasions that I thought Miles did better on the days he went outside for recess. Later when I realized that got us nowhere, I asked the principal what the school policy on recess was. She firmly replied, “There is no formal policy on recess. But I try to encourage the teachers to take the children outside at least on the days when they have no PE.” I answered that I appreciated that, but recess wasn’t just about exercise. It was about having un-structured play time, a small time during the day when the kids could just be kids.
I know it’s been a while since I was in kindergarten. Okay, more than a while … I’m an ex-user of Aqua Net hairspray and jeans so tight you had to lie on your bed to get them on. But when I ask other people my age what they remember about grade school? Freeze tag, red rover, dodge ball, and penny drops off the monkey bars (at least until Scott Horrisberger fell and got a concussion). I got my first kiss, talked my way out of my first fight, and chipped my front tooth all during recess. These are my early life experiences, the situations that taught me to deal with people and the ones that still come up with old friends. In fact, looking back, recess was my favorite part of the day. I believe in leaving no child behind and raising our academic standards as a nation. But I have to wonder at what cost?
This year we have noticed that in general Miles hasn’t been making as many new friends as he so easily did in his preschool days. We mentioned this to his new first grade teacher and asked her if that was her impression. She said he did seem rather quiet around the other kids, but acknowledged there wasn’t much time for socialization. “In fact,” she said, “I discourage it.” In a classroom of eighteen and one teacher, I knew what she meant, but it didn’t help Miles or many of his classmates. If our children are supposed to stay on task in the classroom and be quiet in the lunchroom, when are they supposed to make friends?
When I asked other parents last year if they knew the kids weren’t always going out for recess, most of them seemed surprised and concerned. Unfortunately, it’s a trend that’s becoming more commonplace fueled by safety concerns and pressure for more classroom time thought to increase those beloved test scores. According to the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA), “nearly 40 percent of American elementary schools have either eliminated or are considering eliminating recess.”
Only four states have a policy that requires schools have recess, according the Center for Disease Control. I have to wonder if this would fly in our work environments. Would we settle for our break being taken away?
It seems that most experts in education and health care agree that recess is crucial to our children’s daily activities and is not simply a luxury. In addition to providing a well-deserved break to boost their attentiveness and an opportunity to practice social skills, recess also provides another chance for much needed physical activity in a world that is becoming more and more sedentary.
“Recess, while separate and distinct from physical education, is an essential component of the total educational experience for elementary aged children. Recess provides children with discretionary time and opportunities to engage in physical activity that helps to develop healthy bodies and enjoyment of movement. It also allows elementary children to practice life skills such as conflict resolution, cooperation, respect for rules, taking turns, sharing, using language to communicate, and problem solving in real situations that are real. Furthermore, it may facilitate improved attention and focus on learning in the academic program,” according to “Recess in Elementary Schools,” a position paper from the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.
I recognize, however, that I am not an education professional. In these moments of uncertainty, I like to call on one of my greatest teachers. So I ask Miles. “Miles,” I say, “why do you think recess is important”? And in the infinite wisdom that only a six-year-old can possess, untainted by policy and research, he sums it up quite simply, “Because we just have to get a rest.”