Is Recess a Waste of Time?

October 21, 2011 at 3:15 pm , by

I have what is known in the parenting business as an “active boy.” Let me break it down for you in layman’s terms. It’s Sunday morning. You’re sick as a dog. Your 5-year-old son is delightful and well-behaved, showing much concern for your well-being, even asking if a kiss would help. Fast-forward to after he’s been sitting quietly for four hours, watching videos and playing with trucks while you sneeze miserably into your pillow, and your well-behaved young man is starting to turn into… Satan. He can’t behave, can’t focus; his mood goes to H-E-double-hockey-sticks. So you scrape yourself out of bed and take him out so he can run around. Problem solved; Satan vanquished.

So naturally, when I was looking at schools, recess was top of mind. Last I checked, teachers don’t generally enjoy teaching Satan the sort of kid that my son becomes when he’s been sitting quietly for half a day. Scott is usually well-behaved and loves to learn. But he’s got to move every few hours. All kids do, the experts say, and studies show it not only improves their behavior (duh!) but actually helps them learn. As a mom of an active boy, I know that if my son doesn’t get enough exercise, it will set him up for academic failure, plain and simple. I wasn’t surprised to read a recent report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that 4 out of 5 principals feel that recess has a positive impact on academic achievement.

I’m the psychology editor at LHJ and similar studies about adults and exercise are always coming across my desk. Basically, daily exercise helps stabilize your mood, it relieves stress and makes your brain work better—in addition to all the other health benefits. The evidence is so compelling that businesses are trying to find ways to basically bribe their employees into exercising, so as to have a healthier, more productive work force. I know I work better if I get some exercise around lunchtime. Yet many schools, with parents’ blessings, are cutting out recess entirely, feeling that it’s a waste of time that should be spent on academics. Meanwhile the kids get antsy, more are labeled “ADHD,” and they all stop learning as efficiently. Never mind our childhood obesity epidemic!

Because of what I’d read about schools ditching exercise in favor of more academics, I was afraid I’d run into school administrators who were anti-recess. Not at my son’s school! PS9 is a cash-strapped New York City public school with a high-poverty student body, in a time where meeting higher academic standards is do-or-die—schools that don’t perform are being shut down. But in her address to prospective parents, one of the major points made by the dynamic principal, Sandra D’Avilar, was about exercise. “Kids have got to move,” she said. Amen! She probably also realizes that if recess has any effect on test scores, it’s a positive one.

What I didn’t realize is that having a pro-exercise principal is only half the battle. PS9 has a gorgeous new playground, thanks to a grant that parents applied for from an exercise-promoting nonprofit called Out2Play. But on rainy days and subzero days in the winter, the kids are often stuck in the auditorium watching Magic Schoolbus. There’s not really any other option: There’s only one small gym for the three schools that are crammed into the building. The principal does her best. If there’s a small gym class one day, she’ll have them use the stage as a gymnasium while the recess kids use the basketball court. Parent volunteers are trying to come up with active games that can somehow be played in the auditorium aisles. But ultimately, it seems, exercise takes space, which in a big city takes money. So it’s Magic Schoolbus during recess and gym class only once a week if you’re lucky. Meanwhile, 43 percent of New York City kids are either obese or overweight.

As a parent, I’m desperately trying to come up with solutions for my kid: Can I afford to sign him up for active afterschool classes? Could we get a grant to create a covered play space on the roof? But as a citizen, I see this as a big problem not only for public health (the long-term cost of obese kids) but also for the intellectual future of our country. Because, as renowned Baltimore neurologist and author Majid T. Fotuhi, M.D explained to us when he dropped by the office recently, aerobic exercise actually makes your brain bigger and helps it work better.  My son’s inner-city elementary school can’t afford to offer enough exercise. But our country can’t afford not to.

What do you think? Is recess expendable? Do you know of smart ways that other inner-city schools are coping with the lack of gym space? Please share!


5 Responses to “Is Recess a Waste of Time?”

  1. Ms. Sloan,

    As a Community Health Educator who works in NC to help individuals, schools and communities get active, I was delighted to see your posting advocating for recess. I agree with you and your son’s principal that “Kids have got to move.” The physical and mental benefits of moving around are invaluable. Recess is not a waste of time!

    To address rainy and cold weather days, I wanted to recommend a resource I frequently use in my classes and after-school programs. It is resource of quick classroom Energizers that is promoted by Eat Smart, Move More NC. I love the “As If” activity on page 13 – - it requires no equipment, can be done inside with limited space and is lots of fun for all ages. Here’s an example, “Jog in place AS IF a big scary bear is chasing you.”

    Thanks again taking the time to blog about recess – hope you too make time to go play!

  2. Thanks so much for the comment and the resource, Ms. Johnson! I will pass it along to the PTO lunchtime committee at my son’s school. Great ideas! –Louise

  3. ABSOLUTELY! Kids NEED recess.
    I used to be a substitute teacher’s aid and I can promise you, after a few hours of sitting in their seats the kids get squirmy and they lose their focus. Give them even a 15 minute break to get their sillies out and ‘blow off steam’ (especially after lunch, if you get my point) then they can easily be convinced it’s time to sit down and focus on the rest of the day. I think this is necessary even for high school kids. Even in the work world we have a chance to leave our desk, get up and walk over for a coffee break.

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