Recess: Moving People to Action

“Dear Mommy, I can’t take it anymore, please help me I am so sad at school, I can’t do anything, I am so stupid, I always fail, I hate this mommy please help me, I am scared I won’t pass tax test, I hate this, please is there a school with no stress, please mommy.” -Signed a child in Texas

I often start off my play-related trainings with a visioning exercise. I ask the audience to close their eyes and remember their own play memories–the sights and sounds they experienced, how they interacted with their peers, and where they were when they played. At the close of the activity the group participates in a sharing of memories. The play sessions they recall are rich and varied with many participants remembering the joy of playing in a field or vacant lot, making the most of what ever materials were on hand. While others recalled how they stretched their imaginations as they acted out elaborate scenarios. In conducting these trainings I may on any given day speak to educators, policymakers, parents, and so forth.  Yet regardless of the diversity of profession, culture, or even social economic status, when these now adults share their play memories threads of commonality begin to materialize.

This activity, though brief in nature, provides a detailed view of societal trends. Many of the older participants discuss being able to roam farther from home staying outside until the “sun goes down”, while other participants remember engaging in games that reflected the heritage and culture of their community. In almost every discussion there is a common agreement that each one found time to play at school. The stories may have reflected play that took place during lunch, physical education, recess, or even behind the teacher’s back during class, but it was undeniably happening.

When engaged further, the conversation expands beyond a game of kickball played in the school yard to a discussion of the knowledge and values gained through their play sessions. The setting transforms from a blacktop or playground into a space where children can explore, learn to take risks, negotiate with peers, create and recreate games, and even reflect. Patience, creativity, respect, persistence, loyalty and understanding are just a few of the words commonly shared when asked what was learned on the playground. Yet, as we take a look at the opportunities afforded to many of today’s children, it is easy to see that their play memories will be shockingly different from those of their parents.

Children have seen an erosion of their free and discretionary time over the last several decades, with a decline of more than seven hours a week from 1981 to 1997, and an additional two hours from 1997 to 2003, leaving them with fewer hours to engage in unstructured play. (1, 2) Couple the decline of free time with the fact that schools across the country are reducing recess or eliminating it altogether and children’s opportunities to engage in meaningful play sessions narrow still further.

A 2010 Gallup Poll commissioned by Playworks, an nonprofit dedicated to improving the health and wellbeing of children by increasing opportunities for physical activity and safe, meaningful play, found that 50 percent of principals reported their students receive between 16 to 30 minutes of recess per day. Furthermore, 1 in 5 principals indicated that current testing requirements contributed to the decrease in allotted recess time at their schools .(3) Beyond academic testing, discipline challenges, lack of trained staffing, and poor playground conditions also contribute to the overall decline in recess time.

So it seems that the current rationale of many school administrators amounts to the fact that because they have placed the utmost importance on the academic success and physical safety of their students, they have cut back on recess to ensure success in these areas. Unfortunately, while their hearts might be in the right place their practices are counterproductive. The same Gallup Poll additionally found that nearly all principals believed that recess positively impacted children’s social development (96 percent) as well as contributed positively to their overall wellbeing (97 percent).

Research has linked the importance of recess in healthy child development across several domains. In early studies it was shown that on days where 4th graders had recess, they spent “more time on-task and were less fidgety”, which ultimately creates an environment where more learning can take place. The same study highlighted that the impact of recess was more pronounced in children who are deemed hyperactive. (4) The American Academy of Pediatrics further contributes that the decline in recess is having a profound impact on children’s development stating, “Children’s cognitive capacity is enhanced by a clear-cut and significant change in activity … Even a formal structured physical education class may not offer the same benefit as free-play recess.” (5) Add to this the growing issues of ADD/ADHD, obesity, diabetes, and the rates of inactivity, the need for regular recess periods is heightened.

Children, just as much as adults, need breaks in which they can engage in physical activity, get their blood flowing, and reduce stress levels. Just as the United States Department of Labor affords workers the clear right to take breaks during the work day, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children recognizes children’s rights to the same treatment. Article 31 reads (6):

  1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.
  2. States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.

Once again despite the acknowledgements by educators, physicians, researchers, and even the global community many here in the U.S. are failing to see play as anything more than a luxury. To date, the U.S. remains only 1 of 2 countries who has not ratified the treaty under the Convention on the Rights of the Child; Somalia is the other country. (7) Still despite these setbacks, there are rising calls to restore opportunities for free play and recess from parents and educators across the country.

One in-depth example concerns Sarah Brown, a Texas mother of three. After attending a parent breakfast in which the principal announced that recess was being cut from 30 to 15 minutes, Sarah decided to take action. She spoke to the principal who provided several reasons for the impending cuts. Unsatisfied with this response Sarah investigated each reason given for cutting recess, from the need to emphasize academics overall to the actual length of time it took children to line up for recess. Through her research she was able to provide opposing evidence to counterpoint each of the reasons offered by the administrator. What she accomplished on her own is admirable; however, in understanding the power of mass action, Sarah shared the information with the PTA board who in turn contacted other parents. The volume of emails and phone calls to the school lead the school district to draft a letter to families agreeing that they too believed recess was valuable to children.

The message remained clear. The school district believed that recess was valuable yet felt their hands were tied in the matter, prompting Sarah to take a step further starting the Save Recess campaign. (8) The campaign has resulted in petitions signed by several hundred families, a website dedicated to ensuring children have access to daily recess breaks, and a recent partnership with a likeminded mom in neighboring Mesquite, Texas who was instrumental in convincing her state representative, Cindy Burkett to introduce House Bill 3770.

House Bill 3770 reads as follows;

In addition to the daily physical activity requirement prescribed by Subsection (l), a school district shall require a student enrolled in elementary school to participate in unstructured and undirected play for at least 20 minutes each school day throughout the school year. The period for play required by this subsection may not be used to grant a reward or impose a punishment. In implementing this subsection, the district shall consider the recommendations provided under Section 28.004(l) by the local school health advisory council.

Sarah and Cindy were set to testify in front of the House when the hearing was refused by Rob Eissler, Chair of the Public Education Committee who commented, “We try to leave the discretion to the people running the schools who are the people closest to the kids.”  While the parents have hit a temporary road block, they are certainly moving in the right direction. Their efforts in championing this worthy cause have not gone unnoticed. With each petition signed and op-ed written, support for recess grows. As more families are made aware of the issue and begin to raise their voices, there is hope that the message will get through to policymakers and school administrators. Recess Matters.

As Darell Hammond, Founder of KaBOOM!, puts it, “Even Congress gets recess, so why are schools taking it away from kids?”



1.   Hofferth, S. L., & J.F. Sandberg. (2001). Changes in American children’s time, 1981-1997. In S.L. Hofferth & T.J. Owens (Eds.), Children at the millennium: Where have we come from, where are we going? (pp. 1-7). New York, NY: JAI.

2.   Hofferth, S. L.,  & S.C. Curtin. (2006). Changes in children’s time, 1997-2002/3: An update. University of Maryland, College Park, MD.

3.   Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (February, 2010). The State of Play: Gallup Survey of Principal on School Recess. Retrieved from

4.   Jarrett, O. S., Maxwell, D. M., Dickerson, C., Hoge, P., Davies, G., & Yetley, A. (1998). The impact of recess on classroom behavior: Group effects and individual differences. Journal of Educational Research, 92(2), 121-126.

5.   Ginsburg, K. R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. PEDIATRICS, 119(1). Retrieved from American Academy of Pediatrics’ website:

6.   Office on the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Retrieved from

7.   Unicef. Conventions on the right of the child. Retrieved from

8.   Save Recess.


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What has emerged more prominently in very recent years is the research Danielle mentions regarding the effects of exercise on cognition and resulting academic performance. For an on-the-ground example of this, check out this report from PBS on what Naperville (Ill) Central High School has learned when placing exercise purposefully in the school day:

This is needed in addition to unstructured play, both of which contribute to the balanced health-inducing conditions kids require to learn.

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