Why Boys NEED Recess and How to Become a Recess Advocate

Photo by Dreamer. via Flickr.
Photo by Dreamer. via Flickr.

It seems like it should be obvious: kids — especially young ones — need opportunities to move around throughout the day.

I mean, have you ever watched a group of young kids? They’re like puppies. They scamper all over one another, playing and posturing. More often that not, you’ll find them in physical contact with one another. Physical tussles break out spontaneously, just because.

Contrast that to the typical school environment: Student movement is carefully controlled and circumscribed. Touch may actually be banned, wrestling is definitely not allowed and in many cases, the little opportunity students have for “free” play actually comes with stings and strict rules. Recess, for instance, may be withheld if a student misbehaves and rules designed to promote safety may actually limit creativity, problem-solving, risk-taking and fun.

In many places, recess is non-existent. In many others, it’s been reduced. When I went to school, we had recess daily through eighth grade. At my kid’s public school, kids in seventh grade and up get no recess at all. While I used to get three recesses a day in 4th grade, the fourth graders in our district today are lucky if they get one.

This lack of recess time is hurting our boys.

Increasingly, recess time is being eliminated or reduced due to an increased emphasis on academics; educators believe students needs more time for learning, and consider recess optional, at best; a waste of time, at worst. Other times, recess time is limited or severely restricted due to safety and liability concerns. Some educators also use bullying concerns as a reason to limit or eliminate recess.

Here’s the thing, though: research proves the recess is beneficial for all kids. If your son is struggling in school due to lack of recess time, or if you’re concerned about kids’ lack of time for free play at school, here are three research-based arguments for recess that you can take your school, principal or school board:

  1. Recess encourages active play. The fact that kids today are less fit and less active than previous generations surprises no one. However, research by the American Academy of Pediatrics indicates that many children are getting less than recommended amount of physical activity per day, often due to institutional restrictions on play that stem from injury concerns, liability concerns and an overemphasis on academics. So use your school’s concerns about the overall fitness of their students to your advantage. When the school discusses changes to school lunch program, designed to improve student nutrition and health, ask what actions the school is taking to encourage physical activity throughout the day. (The US Centers for Disease Control recommends 60 minutes or more of physical activity for all kids per day.)
  2. Recess is linked to academic success. Numerous studies have linked physical activity to improved academic performance. And free, unstructured play — the kind most kids engage in at recess — has been shown to be critical to the development of cognitive skills, including problem solving. So while many schools are cutting or eliminating recess in an effort to increase instructional time (and test scores), the research shows that student learning (and test scores) may actually improve if some of that instructional time is replaced with recess time.
  3. Recess promotes emotional, cognitive and social development. Increasing, educators are realizing the socio-emotional skills are important for kids’ success too; that’s why so many public schools have started character education and positive behavioral intervention programs. Free, unstructured play allows and enables kids to develop essential emotional, cognitive and social skills. It helps kids develop communication skills and patience — two skills closely linked to academic success.

Is it easy to convince your son’s school to re-institute, expand, or prioritize recess? No. I speak from experience: I’ve been expressing my recess-related concerns and requesting a review of recess policies and procedures at my son’s school for more than two years now. The biggest obstacle: schools and teachers are not judged on the amount of recess they provide to students; they’re judged, now more than ever, on student performance on standardized tests.

That’s why it’s so important to understand and express the many ways in which recess enhances academic performance and cognitive growth. Presenting research that directly addresses administrators’ and educators’ concerns — and uses the language they use — will generally be more effective than emotion-based pleas for recess.

Does you son’s school have recess? How much? (Or how little?) Have you ever approached your school or school district with recess-related concerns? How did it go? I’d love to hear your stories?

The Building Boys Bulletin

The Building Boys Bulletin Newsletter gives you the facts, encouragement, and inspiration you need to help boys thrive. Written by Jennifer L.W. Fink, mom of four sons and author of Building Boys: Raising Great Guys in a World That Misunderstands Males, Building Boys Bulletin includes:

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“I learned a lot about helping boys thrive over the past 20+ years — most of it the hard way! I’m eager to share what I’ve learned to make your path a little easier.”   – Jennifer

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4 Responses

  1. I have had many issues with recess in the past. I have four kids and at the beginning of every year I talk to all of their teachers about recess, how important I think it is, and –if they take recess away as a punishment or to finish work — if we can come up with some alternatives. Usually the teacher is completely on board.

    Unfortunately, I one of by boys (he also has ADD and so recess is even more important) was kept in for recess repeatedly. I kept talking to the school and being assured that it wouldn’t happen again, only to have him come home and tell me that he’d missed recess again.

    Finally, I escalated to the superintendent and seriously considered filing a human rights complaint and told the school I was going to go to the media. I have also since learned that recess is in the Education Act (I’m in Ontario).

    Since being in touch with the superintendent it hasn’t happened again. But if it does, I’ll fight tooth and nail to protect my kids’ right to recess.


  2. I love recess, but– I hope we do not get the idea for boys, it is a way to burn off excess energy for school. I hope also, we do not see the activity in boys as something just natural.
    I feel the extra activity in boys is due to higher average stress, which seeks out more activity for stress relief. We need to see our average stress as many layers of mental work that we carry with us. I see the more aggressive less supportive, more commanding treatment in toddlers, young boys, and older boys as creating more agitation, fear, and tension along with other conditional love and honor to make them tough. I see the mind as very complex and is dealing with more layers of mental work and tension boys carry with them from past, present, future experiences, fears, distrust, uncertainty. I feel we have yet to change our treatment of boys and so are destined to cling to immediate changes to improve. I feel unless we look at environmental treatment, we will never get to the root of the real problem.

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