Commentary: The value of recess

The Rock Hill HeraldFebruary 26, 2013 


Children relax during recess at the E.E. Waddell Language Academy, a public K-8 magnet school in Charlotte, North Carolina.


What was your favorite subject in school? If many of us were honest, the answer would be recess.

Recess was freedom, the mass breakout from the confines of the classroom, an interval of unrestricted play in what otherwise was a totally structured day. And if you fondly remember recess, hang on to those memories because that’s what recess may ultimately become – a thing of the past.

The attitude toward recess in most states is a contradiction. While nearly everyone concedes that recess is beneficial, only a few states require it and, at most schools, recess is being squeezed out by other priorities.

As often is the case, however, by overcompensating for one activity, we disturb a delicate balance. By sacrificing recess time for inside study time, we actually deprive children of something that would improve their cognitive performance.

A number of studies have demonstrated that children become less attentive the longer they work on a task. But once the children are allowed to play for a relatively short period of time, they became attentive to class work again.

Classroom behavior also improves dramatically when children are cut loose for a little recess. The journal Pediatrics published a study showing that 8- and 9-year-old children had better behavior scores when they were given a recess period at least 15 minutes long.

But of course we have always known this. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Any parent knows that when children become squirmy, distracted and a general pain in the neck, the best antidote is to let them go out and run around for a while. Exercise releases demons.

Most kids also instinctively know the value of recess. It’s not just a break from a stuffy classroom, it’s also a time to learn about interacting with your peers, testing physical skills, learning about fighting and staying out of fights (one often follows the other), forming tribes, developing loyalties, experimenting with swear words, finding out how to make people laugh and any number of other forms of socialization.

Only a few states require that schools include recess in the daily schedule. North Carolina, for one, mandates at least 30 minutes of daily physical activity in kindergarten through eighth grade.

South Carolina has no compulsory recess, but a position statement by the S.C. Department of Education makes the case that recess is an essential component to the total educational experience.

Sadly, recess may be a privilege which, like so many other privileges, is reserved primarily for the privileged. Studies show that children in high-poverty schools are less apt to have recess than children in more affluent communities, even though poor kids probably need it more.

But recess time seems to be shrinking for all. The trend in recent years is to cut back on recess to squeeze in more instruction time.

It’s easy to understand why, with limited time during the school day, planners might regard recess as an unnecessary luxury. But all evidence suggests that attitude is self-defeating – recess helps children learn more effectively.

Fewer and fewer children walk or ride bikes to school these days. Pickup baseball games, backyard basketball games and touch football games seem rarer than they used to.

At recess, kids used to play kickball, hopscotch, four-square, tag and other games. Where do they do that now?

Is it curmudgeonly to envision today’s children existing in a cocoon surrounded by electronic devices, never venturing outside to breathe in chilled autumn air as they run or work up a sweat in the oven blast of summer heat? Do kids still have unorganized free play?

If we allow recess to shrink and fade away, we could be losing much more than we anticipated. If children don’t get the chance to discover themselves on the playground, where is it going to happen?

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached by email at

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