Advocates calling for the return of school recess

  • Updated: February 26, 2013 - 3:02 PM

“Olly olly oxen free!” Is it time for schools to bring recess out of hiding?

Remember recess? Making up games, soaring on swings and conquering the monkey bars?

For years, many schools have been cutting back on recess as they try to squeeze more instruction time out of the day. Now everyone from health experts to Ranger Rick argues that it’s important to bring it back. Chuck Anderson, principal at Bayview Elementary in Waconia, still thinks his students in grades K-4 need 20 minutes a day.

“Part of the reason our kids are successful is because we give them a balanced approach to everything, and recess provides that,” Anderson said.

An abundance of research supports the logic that kids’ health, social skills and brainpower all benefit from time to play outside — every day.

But millions of kids aren’t getting the recommended 20 minutes of daily burn-off-some-steam time, surveys show, let alone the 60 minutes of daily physical activity that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say children and adolescents need.

Lack of recess means even less time outdoors for kids who already spend a lot of indoor time huddled with electronic media.

“Even if it’s an asphalt or concrete surface that kids are out playing on, they are outside,” said Allen Cooper, director of state and local education advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation. “They’re able to feel the wind and see the sky and birds, and hear them sing.”

Cooper heads a national effort to help parents organize locally to push for more recess for their children. The campaign is called Ranger Rick Restores Recess, after the raccoon leader of the group of animal friends whose adventures have long been a staple of the federation’s Ranger Rick magazine.

About 30 percent of American children were not getting at least 20 minutes of daily recess in a nationally representative survey that the University of Illinois at Chicago conducted from 2006 to 2009. A federal survey in 2006 found that 21 percent of schools provided no daily recess at all.

Anderson, the Waconia principal, can’t believe that number is so high.

“I think there’s plenty of value in that 20 minutes,” Anderson said. “Our kids need that break to get up and move.”

Bayview’s recess area features a large wooden structure referred to as “Castle Park.” It also has a blacktop area with old-fashioned games such as tetherball and hopscotch. Students are taught how to play the games during the first week of gym class.

Most states, including Minnesota, impose no recess requirements, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Missouri requires 20 minutes of daily recess in elementary school. In North Carolina, at least 30 minutes of daily physical activity in kindergarten through eighth grade is compulsory. School board policy in Florida’s Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation’s fourth-largest district, stipulates that through fifth grade, children get 15 minutes of recess three times a week, or 20 minutes twice a week.

Recess good for the brain?

The American Academy of Pediatrics is concerned, as well. Based on its research, the group said that a break during the school day gives children “a time to rest, play, imagine, think, move and socialize.”

But recess is worthwhile not just for getting kids out of a stuffy classroom, according to a report published last month in the academy’s journal Pediatrics. “Ironically,” it said, “minimizing or eliminating recess may be counterproductive to academic achievement, as a growing body of evidence suggests that recess promotes not only physical health and social development, but also cognitive performance.”

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