The rebirth of recess
How do you introduce recess to kids who have never left the classroom?
By Nicholas Day
Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012
Every schoolchild who’s ever squirmed in his seat, anxious for recess to arrive, can sympathize with students in Chicago. This year, many public schools in that city are scheduled to have recess for the first time in three decades. Chicago’s long recess drought isn’t unusual. Even before No Child Left Behind, recess was an endangered species. Since NCLB, every minute of the school day has been scrutinized for its instructional value—and recess, a break from instruction, often didn’t survive the scrutiny. It was, by definition, a waste of time.
But while administrators were trying to get rid of recess, academics were studying it—that is, they were studying the time when children weren’t studying. The new science of recess says that recess isn’t a waste of time at all. “Having recess is much, much, much better than not having recess,” says Anthony Pellegrini, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota who’s written extensively on the subject. “That’s unequivocal, I feel. That’s a no-brainer.” That’s good news for children in Chicago squirming in their seats. But what does recess look like when no schoolchild has ever had it before?
It’s an ironic turn of events: For years, schools have been getting rid of recess to spend more time on math and reading. It is notoriously hard to get reliable numbers on recess—recess policies vary from year to year, school to school, even classroom to classroom—but numerous surveys have found recess time declining. That’s especially true in poorer school districts, where test scores are frequently low and principals panicked. The numbers show a clear trend: The more minority students a school has, and the lower the income level of their parents, the less time allotted for recess—nearly half of poor children go all day without it. They don’t even have anywhere to have it: In Chicago, nearly 100 elementary and middle schools have no playgrounds at all. (The American Association of Pediatrics recently issued an impassioned statement on the “play deprivation” experienced by children in poverty.)
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