Is Recess Necessary?

By Jay Mathews
Friday, December 26, 2008; 1:35 PM

I often spout opinions on matters about which I know nothing, so I understand when my favorite peer group -- the American people -- does the same. The latest example is a survey of 1,000 U.S. adults by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which specializes in public health projects, and Sports4Kids, a national nonprofit organization that supports safe and healthy playtime in low-income elementary schools.

According to the survey's press release, "seven out of 10 Americans disagree with schools' policies of eliminating or reducing recess time for budgetary, safety or academic reasons." I realize most people don't know how poisonous recess can be for urban schools with severe academic needs, but I was surprised to see the news release fail to acknowledge this. It even suggests, without qualification, that "in low-income communities" recess time "offers one of our best chances to help children develop into healthy, active adults who know how to work together and resolve conflicts."

Few Americans have an opportunity to experience what teaching in urban schools is like. The people I know who have done so have developed a well-reasoned antipathy for the typical half-hour, go-out-and-play-but-don't-kill-anybody recess. In my forthcoming book, "Work Hard. Be Nice," about the Knowledge Is Power Program, I describe the classroom and playground chaos KIPP co-founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin encountered before starting their first KIPP fifth grade in a Houston public elementary school, the beginning of their successful program:

"If they let any misbehavior go unnoticed, that would increase the likelihood of further bad behavior, distract from the lesson, and slow down the class. If they let some students tease others, resentments would fester, an even more corrosive undermining of a learning environment.

"For those reasons, both Feinberg and Levin disliked the standard school recess. It was a prime distraction. It interrupted the flow of their teaching. They had to line everyone up to go outside and then line them up again to return to class. Recess inspired fights that affected the classroom for the rest of the day. Levin and Feinberg refused to take their class out for recess in the morning, when the energy and concentration of their students were at a high point. [Their principal] did not like such departures from the schedule. But fewer students at recess meant less disruption, so she let it go."

The notion that recess might be a detriment to learning is lost on many of the people surveyed by Robert Wood Johnson and Sports4Kids, as well as the people who wrote the survey news release. It says: "The new findings come at a time when many schools and school districts are making the difficult choice of cutting back on recess to make more time for standardized test preparation, as outlined on a report this fall by the Center for Public Education. Cutbacks to recess tend to be concentrated in schools serving the highest number of minority students or students in poverty, making underserved children the least likely to get this valuable playtime."

See that little dig about standardized tests? A less-biased writer would have acknowledged that conscientious educators like Levin and Feinberg might have good reason to cut back recess in order to give their students more time to learn. The Center for Public Education report, by the way, does not say recess is being cut to make more time for standardized test prep. It also says that contrary to rumor, recess is not disappearing. Nine of every 10 elementary schools have recess, averaging about 30 minutes a day. Those schools cutting recess shave off just a few minutes.

Some schools are eliminating it, however, for what seem like good reasons to me. Brian Betts, principal of Shaw Middle School at Garnet-Patterson in the District, explained the end of recess this year to his students, who are mostly from low-income families: "I have you for only 6 1/2 hours." Educators such as Betts do not, however, reject the need for more play and exercise. They prefer to provide it through physical education and after-school sports, where there is room for teaching. Some schools, such as KIPP, have longer school days in part so they can ensure that children get daily PE, something that public schools have been cutting back for several decades.

As I wrote about the first KIPP class in Houston: "As a substitute for recess, Feinberg and Levin had a 45-minute dodge ball game just for their students every afternoon. About 3:30 p.m., after the regular Garcia [Elementary School] students had gone home, the KIPP class would take a snack break and then head for the gym. They used the basketball court. The class divided itself into two large teams, one on each side of the midline. Teachers and students tried some new rules. If you sank the ball in the basketball hoop from the other side of the line, everyone on your team could come back into the game. Some players were ghosts and could not be killed by being hit with a ball because they were invisible. It was a good assignment for players who were small or weak or very new to the game."

Betts, at Shaw Middle, does the same thing. Everyone has PE every day, something they did not have at their schools the year before. There are also after-school sports. Shaw Middle's football team finished the season 5-1.

The best argument for recess, it turns out, comes from the founder and president of Sports4Kids, Jill Vialet. She doesn't try to defend her news release, and instead points to the 2007 report her organization and Robert Wood Johnson published, "Recess Rules." It goes right to the center of the debate, with quotes from principals about recess: "Recess is when all the trouble starts: the teasing, the fights, the bullying, the injuries, the referrals," or "I know it's lunch recess when the office is full and the nurse is cringing," or the most frequent response, "Recess is hell!"

Yet Vialet thinks recess can add to learning if knowledgeable organizations like her nonprofit train the adult supervisors. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has committed $18.7 million to expand Sports4Kids the next five years.

To her, recess is a perfect opportunity to teach children how to cooperate and settle disputes. The notion that they will have the time and guidance for carefree exercise and other recess benefits back home after school, she says, is just another middle-class myth, like the view that the standard recess is good for everybody.

Vialet knows the KIPP people. Sports4Kids has worked with their schools in Baltimore. She does not deny Feinberg's argument that recess can deteriorate to "opening up the door and letting the kids run into the school yard while the teachers gather in the shade and talk about how much they hate the principal." If recess is going to work, Vialet and Feinberg say, there have to be good teachers in the middle of it, interacting with kids in a thought-out way.

Feinberg says, "Whether the goal is children playing a team sport to learn teamwork or knocking 20 seconds off their average time in running the mile, or learning social problem-solving through interactions while playing informally, all of those situations need a teacher to set up the activities and/or facilitate the activities -- and debrief to help the children process what they have learned when teachable moments on the schoolyard arise."

Many of us, including some of the respondents to the recess survey, likely attended suburban elementary and middle schools where recess was kicking a ball around, or a couple of games of foursquare. Those 30-minute breaks from teacher supervision are sweet memories, but we have forgotten the less charming aspects of playground life. If students are one or two years below grade level, time is precious. Vialet and Feinberg are right to want more teaching, not less, even when students are not in class.

Editor's note: Class Struggle will take a holiday break next Friday, Jan. 2, and will resume on Friday, Jan. 9.

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