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The return of recess

John Lustig

As public schools have been pressured to emphasize academics in recent years, one of the traditions of the school day that often gets put on the chopping block is recess. But studies show that recess provides a variety of benefits beyond a break in the school day for kids.

This week on “Take Care,” Michelle Carter, senior program manager of the Society of Health and Physical Educators, better known as SHAPE America, discusses the benefits recess can provide. Carter has also served as a health and physical education teacher in the Washington, D.C. public school system.

Recess is defined as a period of time in the school day when students are encouraged to be physically active and engage with their peers in an activity of their choice.

Critics sometimes argue that if kids have a physical education class during the school day, that recess is not necessary. But Carter notes that the difference between PE and recess is that PE is more structured. It has a curriculum, lessons and objectives, whereas during recess students get to pick their activity.

Carter says recess provides a variety of benefits. First, is more physical activity. She says at home, students are less likely to go outside and play than in years past. Things like computers and video games are more popular leisure activities for kids. Having more time to be physically active is important in fighting obesity, she says.

But recess has also been shown to help improve memory and attention, Carter says. In addition, giving kids an outlet to be physically active can help reduce classroom disruption. Plus, playing with other students helps build communication skills, negotiation and problem solving. Carter says that can be part of a child’s social and emotional development.

In addition, getting in the habit of being physically active on a regular basis is part of learning a healthy lifestyle, says Carter. In PE, students learn the skill of how to move their bodies and why it’s important. In recess, they get to put those skills into practice.

Carter says SHAPE America recommends the following recess guidelines for schools:

  • Minimum of 20 minutes a day
  • Required for grades K-12
  • Scheduled before lunch
  • Have a plan for inclement weather
  • It should be in addition to PE class

While many people associate recess with elementary school, Carter says it provides benefits to secondary students as well. And scheduling recess before lunch helps promote a good appetite.
Carter says the biggest reason why recess is often threatened is because of all the many things school administrators are trying to squeeze into the confines of the school day. But she notes that liability concerns are another potential reason.

“Especially if a school is not adequately staffed to provide supervision for recess, [that] definitely would be a liability issue. And I think we live in a culture, or society, that could definitely be a real issue to be sued, or to have some kind of backlash if a student were to get hurt,” Carter said.

Staffing levels can also contribute to recess reluctance. Carter says schools definitely need staff to supervise students and trained staff to monitor recess to avoid injuries.

But Carter says schools don’t need to worry about having a lot of equipment.

“The key point is just making sure that students do have an opportunity to move, to be physically active.”