On Oct. 25 schoolchildren in the Washington area emerged gleefully from locked classrooms and ran out to the playground. "Recess is back," proclaimed The Post. But had the snipers who shut down ordinary life for weeks chosen to attack in Chicago, or Atlanta, or parts of Texas and Florida -- or many other places -- the children wouldn't have marked the return to normality by going out for recess again. Children in these places do not have recess -- ever.

Recess has been disappearing quietly, school by school, for at least two decades. Its demise, and the apathy surrounding it, frame a somber picture of contemporary American childhood. Parents would never put their children on leashes, but they might as well: Children are shuffled from car or bus to school door, then proceed through the motions of a supervised day that more closely resembles house arrest than childhood.

School districts do not deliberately enact blanket policies forbidding fun -- it just quietly vanishes, except in places where small groups of activist parents kick up dust. One group of child advocates says that 40 percent of American schools have no recess.

Principals banish recess for many reasons, ranging from the offhand to the calculated. Schools want to help children study harder for the standardized tests that are taking over school districts. They want to dismiss school early. They say they need time for gym or Spanish. Or they believe that children cannot be productive unless an adult is leading them -- so children have to do things such as the math exercise at one school, in which they estimate their long jumps before leaping. Some schools tell parents that children can unwind in gym class.

The only theme in common at all of the schools without recess is that the school administrators do not think anyone will mind. With the exception of the activists, they are right. In only a few schools has recess made a comeback after falling off the schedule.

Children at recess-free schools get no time to just run and yell, or have fights and make up, or lie down and look at the clouds, or invent a monster game without an adult standing over them. The experts who study child development say that if children don't get this kind of freedom, tension presses in, concentration evaporates, anger takes over -- and they learn less.

A few child experts have concluded this in studies, but one of the academics I interviewed, Olga S. Jarrett, an assistant professor of early childhood education at Georgia State University, said that in the United States, there is little research that proves it is important to have fun. She is planning a study comparing academic achievement among children who have recess with that of children who do not.

Teachers, principals and superintendents think they are making school richer when they increase class time and decrease playground time. But one thing this does is destroy the underground community that thrives on active playgrounds and that the academics say prepares children for the challenges of adult life. For many children now, there is no place away from home where they can just goof off or figure out how to cope with bullies, tattletales and liars.

Elementary school recess began to disappear as long ago as the 1970s. The trend seems to have accelerated since the 1983 report "A Nation at Risk," and with the standardized test movement of the 1990s.

Administrators say that recess just fell off the schedule at most Chicago schools starting about 30 years ago, when school leaders were tinkering with the lunch-hour schedule. The Chicago public school administration doesn't even count how many schools lack recess, but it does concede it's the majority of them. A principal in that city who has won a national award made a point of bringing recess back to her school four days a week. She calls recess her soapbox topic. She said that she tries to persuade other principals, one by one, to follow her lead.

Change comes about through persistent parent groups or dynamic principals. Some parents have fought to bring back recess, but they tend to be more savvy and upper-class.

Rebecca Lamphere bought a house next to an elementary school in Virginia Beach. "I never saw kids on the playground," she said. School leaders told her they had urged principals to use time more productively than on the playground. So she lobbied for the new state law requiring recess.

Parents in Greenville, Tex., northeast of Dallas, recall that their district got rid of recess because it was inconvenient. A new state law required longer gym classes. The superintendent thought it would be better to expand music class, too, so children could alternate music and gym and have them finish at the same time. He told the public that children get breaks at the water fountain or in computer lab.

If America's public schools continue on this path, and most schools give up recess because it doesn't seem important, then we will have turned back the clock, making childhood a bleak time overshadowed by the power of harried grown-ups. All the more strange is that this shift will happen through the efforts of grown-ups to make childhood better.

Christine Woodside is a writer who lives in Connecticut.