What’s the best part of the school day? Ask the closest available child, and you’ll likely hear this age-old answer: Recess!

Recess is a release for children, but sometimes a headache for educators who are trying to pack more and more curriculum requirements into the school day. It’s also become a negotiating piece in the national effort to combat obesity. Some kids don’t get recess every day; instead, they get gym class.

Let’s start with some basic truths. Gym class is not recess. Gym, or physical education, is a structured, teacher-led class. It typically involves physical activity, but doesn’t give kids a true break. As one seven-year-old put it, “In gym class they tell you what to do and your friends aren’t on your team.”

With kids spending so much time indoors these days, and concerns about obesity, it’s easy to assume that recess’s main benefit is physical movement. Motion is part of it, but motion is not the point. Recess is much more than running around. It’s a social and emotional break from being told what to do. Sitting still and holding a pencil is hard work, and frustrating, for many kids. Dealing with peers and teachers can be tough. Recess offers exuberant, emotional release.

Recess also brings academic benefits, both in actual learning and improved behavior. When kids return to the classroom their accuracy and factual recall shoots up. They can pay attention and absorb new material better. They goof off less and test scores typically rise since recess is an ally for memory and focus. In fact, research on third-graders conducted by the University of Minnesota found that kids grow increasingly inattentive the longer they have to wait for recess.

With all this good, it’s hard to believe recess is in trouble. But many schools view recess as a luxury or a bargaining chip. It’s in peril partly because well-meaning educators are replacing true recess with gym class or in-class stretching routines. It’s also in danger on a daily basis for individual kids because it’s common practice for teachers to use recess as a discipline device. For example: “Finish your math or you’ll finish it during recess.”

Kids have a right to recess. It’s as essential as lunch for optimal learning. The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees, and issued a strong policy statement in 2013, saying: “Recess…should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.” No taking recess away. Not for behavior reasons. Not for homework reasons. Not for any reason.

Unfortunately, it’s the kids who most need recess who often get in trouble and are deprived of it. Neuroscientists are telling us that children with ADHD and other fidgety, poke-your-neighbor kids are precisely the ones who need longer and more frequent recess periods. The human mind needs breaks. Even as adults we can’t sustain peak attention for long periods. So-called misbehavior is often a sign that the school day is not fitting children’s needs. The child’s developing mind is wired to run, laugh and play, and committing new lessons to memory requires regular breaks.

Since not all schools have protective recess policies, the fear of losing recess hangs over elementary kids’ heads each day. The top two reasons kids lose recess are bad behavior and not turning in homework or other class assignments. Even if kids get out on the playground, they can be benched for a variety of reasons—some justified, some plain mysterious. Seven-year-old Jack, whose mother I interviewed for my upcoming book “It’s OK to Go Up the Slide,” violated the “no picking things up off the ground” rule by gathering a bouquet of fall leaves for his mother. Another child I spoke with, eight-year-old Ava, and her friends created a secret language to talk to ants. This went against the “no secrets at school” rule and they had to stand against the fence.

Deprivation of recess is a powerful tool. So powerful, teachers are reluctant to let it go. Perhaps they fear loss of control over their students, similar to fears teachers a generation ago held when faced with the idea of giving up spanking students. We ought to trust teachers more. Teachers can certainly maintain authority without this unhealthy practice.

Supporters of recess must work at different levels. Besides individual teacher and school practices, district policies impact kids’ access to recess. Some school districts have eliminated recess entirely, even for children as young as first grade. This hits low-income schools disproportionately. Researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University, for example, reported that 44 percent of U.S. elementary children living in poverty have no recess at their schools, compared with 17 percent of those from families above the poverty line.

A more prevalent problem is simply whittling down recess time. Three recess periods were common a generation ago. Now many schools make room for only one. The loss is compounded when minutes are shaved from recess. Fifteen minutes. Seven minutes. The number of schools reporting little (less than 20 minutes) or no recess time is growing nationwide, and some of this allotted recess time is spent putting on coats or standing in perfect lines.

Recess should not be removed as a punishment. It cannot be replaced by gym class. It must not be reduced to make room for more in-class instructional time. Recess itself – its very nature – is essential to school learning. Ideally all students in grades K-8 should have daily recess, and children 11 and younger need it the most.

Recess replenishes and refreshes young minds. It’s a glimmer of free thought in an otherwise highly structured day, and it’s as important as a good night’s sleep for behavior and learning.

Recess is not a luxury from a bygone time. It is every bit as necessary today for children’s optimal learning. Regular, daily recess for every child must be recognized as a right.

Heather Shumaker’s new book It’s OK to Go Up the Slide (TarcherPerigee/Penguin Random House) will be published March 8.

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