Little Falls, Upsala wisely using research on recess

Remember recess? Was it a relief? Are your memories mostly about fun and games?

Or was it sometimes traumatic, with kids picking on you or others?

Turns out that there’s a lot of rethinking going on about recess. In some places, recess unwisely is being eliminated.

Fortunately, Minnesota district and charter public schools seem to be making use of some of the best research about recess. I recently surveyed 40 Minnesota district and charter public schools. Thirty-four, more than 80 percent, including Little Falls and Upsala, responded. Literally every one of the schools has retained daily recess in their elementary schools.

Vern Capelle, K-12 dean of students in Upsala, wrote, “We do have recess for our elementary students, grades K – 4, every day for 25 minutes. We recently changed our recess by taking our fifth – sixth grade students from recess and giving them 25 minutes of extra physical education each day. The more structured setting has been a positive change so far.

“I tend to fall in the middle in my opinion of recess … I believe that there needs to be time for social interaction and play, but on the other hand, the majority of our discipline issues occur on the playground, or as a result of something that occurred on the playground. We have seen an improvement in this so far, which may be due to the taking the fifth and sixth grade students out of the recess group, but it is still too early to draw clear conclusions.”  he said.

Stephen Jones, Little Falls superintendent, talked with two district elementary principals. Those schools have daily recess of 20 – 25 minutes.

One principal wrote, “Recess is needed each day so the students have an opportunity to get a break from the classroom, get some exercise and play with friends. The unfortunate aspect is that recess has been impacted by increased pressure on testing.”

The second principal said, “Recess is a necessary part of elementary students’ day. They need an opportunity to be outside with their friends. Most students engage in some type of physical activity during recess such as structured games like kick ball, dodge ball, etc. or using the playground equipment including the individual pieces of equipment such as jump ropes, hula hoops, etc. We have worked hard to teach playground expectations to ensure students show respect, responsibility, positive attitude and safety on the playground. These are skills that many students need to be successful during recess.”

A widely cited 2005 study by the National Center for Educational Statistics shows that about 7 percent of all public elementary school first – third grade students don’t have any daily recess. This increases to 14 percent in elementary schools that serve 50 percent or more students from minority groups. Almost 20 percent of schools where 75 percent or more of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch don’t offer daily recess for their first – third graders.

Anthony D Pellegrini, professor, Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota, is extremely critical of the “no recess” policy that some schools use. He said, “No data has ever been presented” to show the value of eliminating recess. However, he cited “numerous studies” documenting that:

• Having a break is very important;

• By having a break, students learn more when they get back in the classroom; and

• Recess can help youngsters “learn and develop social skills.”

Pellegrini said adults supervising recess should “minimize aggressive, anti-social behavior. They should step in when they do see it.”

Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, wrote to me, “The focus on pumping up test scores becomes counterproductive when it squeezes out activities like recess.”

He said, “Children, particularly young children, learn more when they take breaks and move around. Educators know this from experience, and now it’s being confirmed by independent researchers.”

Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, [email protected].