Recess is good for kids. So why are some schools still taking it away as a punishment?
Outdoor play helps kids reset, which is why experts and parents are opposed to it being used to discipline students
My 7-year-old son headed inside from the bus, only to stop abruptly, pivoting right back out. “Going to play outside. We didn’t get recess today,” he shouted back at me. After a bit of digging, I later determined that one of his teachers had taken away recess for the whole class after they were being too noisy. My mama bear blood got a little hot hearing this. As a former teacher myself, I know that our young kids only have 20 minutes of their eight-hour days to spend at recess to begin with, so when it’s occasionally taken away as a consequence for behavior, it stings.
The American Academy of Pediatrics points to the necessity of recess, similar to eating lunch or taking bathroom and water breaks, as a must for kids’ mental health, which is at peak levels of concern. Research has found that more than one in five children between the ages of 3 to 17 has a mental, emotional or behavioral health disorder. Programs such as Texas Christian University's Liink Project, meanwhile, have found that getting one hour of recess reduced chronic stress and anxiety by 70%, increased positive emotions by 17% and has even had physical impacts such as healthier body fat percentages in kids.
Some districts and states have even mandated consequences other than restricting recess for kids. The D.C. Healthy Schools Act, for example, insists that recess not be taken away for behavioral reasons, and mandates that students receive at least 20 minutes of recess time, though it recommends giving them a full hour. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also notes that 60 minutes or more of "moderate to vigorous physical activity daily" is recommended for young people aged 6 to 17, per The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
Here’s what’s really going on when a student is watching recess from a wall rather than participating.
Missing out on an essential reset for regulation
Lara Goodrich, a psychologist who works with school-aged children in Madison, Conn., says recess is important in terms of regulation, which refers to “command over one’s emotions and behaviors …conducting ourselves in a way that’s appropriate to our environment.” Kids who are unregulated — meaning they are unable to control their body, mouth, impulses, attention span and more — are not in the ideal headspace to learn. The D.C. Healthy Schools Act, for instance, explains that recess offsets that with a “cognitive reset,” which helps children not only regulate themselves, but also learn more efficiently, as breaks are essential for retention.
Goodrich agrees. “For kids, in a structured school environment, hitting all of their academic milestones, having that release where they don’t have to be attentive to one thing, and they can shape what they’re choosing to be attentive to” is essential, she says. There's also power in "physically being able to burn off angst or stress [and] getting fresh air and vitamin D," she adds.
Stephanie Krauss, a St. Louis-area mom of two boys, former fifth grade teacher and principal and author of Whole Child, Whole Life: 10 Ways to Help Kids Live, Learn and Thrive, says taking away recess is typically "harmful" to kids.
“If they had a behavior issue that had anything to do with executive functioning or behaviors that could relate to anxiety or tension issues, then you are taking away the ... opportunity for them to organically reset and regulate,” Krauss says. “So they go back into the classroom and the likelihood that it happens again [increases].”
Shaming sensitive kids
Like me, Cincinnati mom Tiffany Alston has two kids at a school that frequently cuts recess as a consequence, a strategy she calls “counterproductive." While she supports imposing consistent consequences for behavior issues, taking recess off the table means a child misses out on that much-needed reset and social opportunities. Being left out can feel shaming.
"It’s humiliating to have all of your classmates watch you sit while they have fun,” Alston says. “My 5-year-old son loses recess at least once a week for things like accidentally pushing in line (no one was hurt); rolling around at circle time; play fighting; getting out of his seat during table time twice and accidentally ripping a friend's paper."
Krauss adds that for sensitive or socially aware kids, being left out can exacerbate the problem. “When they’re removed front their peers, and they have to sit out," they may encounter a "social stigma" that can weigh heavily.
Goodrich says that it also creates unpredictability in a child's day to have a constant possibility of losing recess. “They’re distinctly seeing that I am different from other children, and it adds the implicit message of ‘you’re bad, you’re wrong and everyone else can succeed,’” she says. “If a child gets that message too much, it’s just a really sad, unwanted belief.”
The end of “standing on the wall” watching recess
According to Michael Amick, principal of Bellevue Elementary School in Pittsburgh, Pa., there's been a slow movement away from punitive past consequences in favor of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS). This is a framework some districts have started to use, which offers more incentives and rewards positive behaviors, he says.
While "there is still a part of that where you have to have clearly outlined rules and systems, and part of that is a consequence for an infraction,” Amick notes, taking away recess isn't recommended as a consequence. If teachers are going to deny or “take” something, it has to be intentional, and shouldn’t be an assembly or an entire recess period. “It should only be five or ten minutes, and that should be purposeful, not just sitting on the bench somewhere — [the time-out] should be to talk to the teacher" or another similar meaningful learning opportunity.
Amick says he wanted to "eliminate the practice" of denying kids recess because "it led to more issues all day, whether it was a direct result of students not getting to run around, or they are just angry all day because they lost recess and that’s their favorite part of the day,” he says, adding, "one thing I disliked is that a student infraction doesn’t have anything to do with recess.”
As an educator, Amick doesn’t want kids to feel they have to “walk on eggshells all day,” wondering what will lead to them losing recess. “It actually heightens the anxiety and importance of recess," he explains. "Like, I was good and now all of a sudden I’m bad because I lost recess.”
How to talk to your child’s school about recess as a consequence
Amick says if parents are concerned with any consequence their child receives at school, it's best to first talk to the teacher directly. “Clearly articulate that, and the rationale, and that you want to support the teacher too," he suggests. "[Try saying] 'Hey, I want to make sure my child is following the rules also, but I’d like to talk to you about what a different consequence or approach would be.’” He adds that teachers need more support as well, as expectations change, so they feel able to provide alternative consequences that are more appropriate for kids.
Goodrich hopes more schools will implement built-in ways in the school environment for children who are becoming dysregulated or having behavior problems to self-soothe, along with teacher support. This might look like a corner with sensory objects to calm students, or simply a swing, bouncy chair or another object that helps them reset themselves “in a way where this is not an automatic connotation of being bad or getting punished” independently, she adds. This is something parents can advocate for their child's school to consider as a potential step before giving a consequence.
Krauss also recommends visiting the teacher in person, for that human-to-human interaction, and “assuming good” on the teacher’s part from the beginning. The recess issue is one that's worth addressing, she adds. "This is one to speak up on."
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