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December 30, 2008

We Need Recess!

Jay Mathews, a columnist for the Washington Post, recently wrote an article questioning the need for recess in elementary and middle schools.  He notes that in urban schools, where students are often one to two grade levels behind their suburban peers and drastically in need of academic intervention, recess may simply be more hassle than it's worth.  The unstructured time is a breeding ground for disputes, accidents, and general unpleasantness, and it does not typically accomplish an academic purpose. 
As a teacher in an urban school, I can understand where Mathews is coming from. I have seen the nurse's office filled with scraped knees, the Principal's office occupied by students writing apology letters to peers and teachers, and the bathrooms abuzz with gossip about what happened on the playground that day.  But despite all of these challenges, I believe that recess -- if structured appropriately -- is a critical part of a child's school day.  Many students at my school live in a neighborhood where it is not safe to go outside and play, and they have limited opportunities to move and interact freely with their peers.  Plus, some of my students arrive at school at 8am and don't leave until 6:30pm; they simply do not have time to play outside at home.  
Now I'm not necessarily advocating for the standard "free for all" type of recess that I know is common in many schools.  I agree with Mathews that this is can be an unproductive use of time that in some cases can detract from classroom learning.  However, a more structured recess time, where students are offered games and provided assistance with solving social problems is highly deslirable.  In my classroom, I plan at least one structured activity for recess each day -- everything from "red light, green light" to animal races (earlier this month students ran like the different animals mentioned in Time to Sleep by Denise Fleming), to painting with water on the sidewalk.  Students do not have to join the activity, but the option is there if they choose to do so.  I also provide materials, such as chalk, balls, cars, etc. to enhance their outdoor play.  Finally, our classroom norms for interaction and problem solving still apply when we are outside.  I teach my students how to use all of the materials, play games, and be safe, while talking explicitly about how we should interact with one another while outside.  With this foundation, recess is an invaluable time to reinforce social skills, extend academic learning, and build gross motor muscles. 
I understand that my exact method for implementing recess in pre-k is not necessarily applicable to teachers in upper grades, but I do believe that the underlying principles are valid.  Teachers need to teach students how to interact during recess, just as they teach them algebra or how to walk through the hallways.  And when students do not learn or behave as teachers expect, teachers need to figure out why and reteach - not simply abandon the process all together. 


It's a crying shame that recess is being seen as optional more and more along with the creative arts. I see the pressure everywhere for testing and it squeezes on the curriculum. But kids need recess. Those apology letters, as annoying and time consuming as they are, are a valuable social lesson to learn. I remember spending a long time sitting with kids doing that.
Recess is a valuable tool for learning. The gross motor input helps with the concentration that follows in the classroom. Boys totally need it. It's a shame that academics have been so skewed and that socialization has become neglected.

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