Recess is History: The important, but disappearing role, of activity in education

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – It’s just a small break in a child’s day, but recess could hold some of the keys to their successful education.

That is, assuming it’s still in your child’s school. Recess is disappearing in thousands of school systems nationwide to make room for more class time amidst greater academic rigors and initiatives like Common Core and No Child Left Behind. While their intentions may be good, experts say the concept itself may be counterproductive.

“There is evidence that there’s improved concentration, improvements on task behavior, improvements in actual grades,” said Dr. Karen Pfieffer in the Michigan State University Kinesiology Department.

“Recess offers a time to enhance those skills, and in addition to that, then, children’s belief that they can perform those skills adequately. The opportunity to enhance and improve on those skills…keeps getting less and less.”

The trend comes at a troubling time for youth. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one-in-three school-aged children and teens are overweight, but perhaps even more troubling than the physical aspects of recess are the cognitive paybacks your student could be missing out on.

“It’s not that I think people don’t think physical activity is good. I think that people are concerned right now about children’s performance in schools,” said Dr. Pfieffer. “Whether it’s right or wrong, this is one of the things – one of the strategies that’s been employed – to help improve test scores and things like that and sometimes for educators, that’s the bottom line.”

While recess continues to become history at large, some schools are embracing the benefits active curriculum can offer. At the Rudolf Steiner School in Ann Arbor, one in a network of schools like it across the country, constant movement and activity are the focal point of their student’s education.

“As we’re preparing a lesson we think about, ‘where can I get movement into this lesson?’” said Calisa Tucker, a Steiner School teacher. “If you go into a first grade class, you’ll see children snapping and clapping and rhythmically moving to learn math. They’re using their hands, they’re using their bodies to play, they’re physically counting things.”

Some Steiner kindergarten classes will spend the entirety of their day outdoors, barring inclement weather, and their middle and high school students get multiple recesses daily. It’s a less common approach to education, but teachers notice the difference.

“I would definitely disagree with that statement that more classroom time equals more success. I think it has to be used correctly,” said Brent Schulte, a high school teacher in the Steiner system. “If you think about breathing in and breathing out: sitting in a classroom, you’re taking in all this information all day, there needs to be a time – a break – to kind of breathe out and let some of that stuff live within you.”

Currently there are no set limits for recess time in the state of Michigan, only guidelines recommending schools shoot for 150 weekly minutes of physical activity for elementary school students, and 225 weekly hours for middle and high schoolers. Those guidelines are for the school’s to use at their discretion.

But those tracking the trend, like Dr. Phieffer, wonder if even the recommendations are enough.

“I think people recognize the connection, it’s just that there are other needs,” she said.

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