When children face disciplinary action for misbehavior in school, taking away recess is a popular form of punishment. If a student is disruptive in class, taking away recess –– something they enjoy –– will encourage better behavior, right? Maybe a student needs to complete homework or hasn’t finished a task that was given in class. Isn’t recess the perfect time for students to make up their work and finish that assignment?
Unfortunately, taking away recess may do more harm than good, for both students and teachers. In the face of increasing emphasis on academics and pressure to meet educational standards, recess is at risk of being removed from the school day altogether. But recess provides benefits and offers essential skills for kids that shouldn’t be ignored. Here’s why teachers should reconsider taking away recess and what alternatives can be used instead.
Can Teachers Take Away Recess?
There is no federal rule that requires schools to provide students with recess. Each state and school district has varying stances on recess, but the practice of taking away recess to discipline misbehaving students is a common one. The majority of principals, 77%, take away recess as a punishment. Studies have shown that nearly 82 percent of school districts allowed students to be barred from recess, and it’s still common today.
Teachers may feel limited in their options when it comes to choosing punishments for bad behavior in the classroom. Taking away recess is a logical punishment for students behaving poorly. But, while teachers and administrators may believe this practice is an effective method of punishing and preventing bad behavior, it might be doing just the opposite.
Why Taking Recess Away Doesn’t Work
Research shows that taking away recess doesn’t improve behavior in the classroom. In fact, an excessive amount of boredom and energy will make misbehaving kids even worse. A study on fourth graders found that students were more focused and less fidgety if they’d had recess. Teachers aren’t only punishing their students when they take away recess –– they’re punishing themselves by filling their classroom with inattentive, unfocused, and hyperactive students.
Why Kids Need Recess
When teachers and administrators take away recess as a measure of discipline, they’re viewing recess as an optional part of the day. But recess is more essential than we might initially assume. Organizations like the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend at least 20 minutes of recess a day for all elementary school students. This is because recess brings with it an array of benefits for both students and teachers. Recess gives kids the opportunity to:
1. Release Energy
As adults, our dependence on caffeine to get us through the day may leave us forgetting the energy we once naturally had as children. Children have natural levels of high energy that keep them moving from the moment they wake up to the moment their head hits their pillow, especially in their elementary school years. When they’re in school, this means children are likely to fidget and won’t always be able to sit still, especially for long periods of time.
When children are able to expend some of their energy by getting out of their seats and going outside or to the gym, they can use that excess energy and refocus on the tasks at hand in the classroom. They’ll be more relaxed and receptive to learning –– a bonus for both students and teachers.
2. Be More Attentive
Kids are energetic, and it’s essential to keep them engaged — but they can’t be asked to focus on specific tasks for hours on end. With a push to subscribe to guidelines and meet educational standards, though, teachers might feel the need to give their students as much information as possible in the time they’re allotted. A 30-minute break for recess might seem excessive, let alone multiple breaks throughout the day. But maybe that’s exactly what elementary school students need in order to maintain focus.
Rather than punishing students for their naturally high levels of energy, schools should aim to work with their students by molding the school day and the learning environment around students’ needs. That way, when students return to their seats, they’ll be ready to continue learning.
3. Develop Academic Skills
The practice of taking away recess as discipline likely stems from teachers’ and administrators’ lack of understanding of the impact recess has on children’s behavior. Playground activities help children build essential skills they need to succeed in the classroom. Swinging, for instance, helps children develop coordinated movements that can also lead to improved motor skills. The soothing back and forth motion of the swing can provide a calming effect as well if a child is feeling anxious — which can translate to better focus in the classroom.
Recess also helps students develop essential skills they’ll need as they grow and mature. In the same way a well-rounded diet promotes health, a well-rounded school day promotes learning. We want the children of today to grow into the skilled, knowledgeable adults of tomorrow, and we need to give them the time, space, and tools to do so.
4. Improve Test Scores
Since physical activity is linked to improving focus and promoting creative thinking, incorporating physical activity into the school day could help students perform better on tests and increase test scores.
5. Develop Social Skills
Recess allows kids to interact with their friends and peers freely, giving them the opportunity to learn a variety of life lessons such as managing interpersonal conflict, solving problems, sharing, and taking turns. These skills are needed both in and out of the classroom and well beyond their elementary and middle school years, serving them throughout the rest of their lives –– and benefiting anyone who interacts with them.
6. Engage in Necessary Physical Activity
In an age of increasingly sedentary lifestyles, consciously making time for exercise has become more important. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity for kids per day. After accounting for the six-plus hours kids spend in school each day, time spent commuting to and from school, time spent completing homework in the evenings, and the increase in time spent in front of screens, the amount of available time for kids to exercise quickly dwindles down.
Recess gives kids a guaranteed amount of time each day to get some exercise. During recess, kids can run, jump, and swing their way to meeting their 60-minute daily quota of physical activity. Taking away this time for exercise isn’t just a punishment for bad behavior in the classroom –– it can potentially be harmful to a child’s overall health. We should encourage recess as a guaranteed component of every school day, not as a treat that can be taken away.
7. Avoid Obesity
A 2017 study found that fewer than one in three children are getting enough exercise each week. With the increasing usage of screens in our daily lives, kids not only spend a lot of time sitting while they’re in school, but they’re also spending a lot of time sitting while they’re at home. Obesity in childhood can lead to heart disease, diabetes, and other health issues.
At Johns Hopkins and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center at Carnegie Mellon University, researchers found that fewer than 32 percent of kids ages eight to 11 get at least 25 minutes of vigorous physical activity three times a week. Increasing that amount to 50 percent could save nearly $22 billion in medical expenses and lost wages over the children’s lifetimes.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at least an hour of moderate to vigorous exercise every day, so recess and physical activity among children are not just concerns for parents and teachers. They’re concerns for all of us. Physical activity during recess can help kids reduce their risk of obesity and help them stay healthy, which will not only save our nation billions of dollars but could potentially save their lives. Recess isn’t a luxury or a treat –– it’s a necessity that keeps children healthy, happy, and learning every day.
Students With ADHD
Taking away recess is of particular concern for students with ADHD. These children are more likely to be punished for speaking out of turn in class, fidgeting, leaving their seats, or not completing classwork in time. Withholding recess might be used as a punishment for this behavior, but these are the students who most need recess.
What Is ADHD?
ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is a medical condition. ADHD is marked by differences in brain development and activity and causes several symptoms that can make a child hyperactive, inattentive, and impulsive.
Symptoms of ADHD include:
- Hyperactivity. Kids with ADHD are fidgety, experience difficulty staying seated, talk excessively, and get bored quickly. When bored, they’ll rush through tasks to get them over with quickly and make mistakes out of carelessness. These behaviors can disrupt a classroom when a student with ADHD is frequently getting out of their chair or making noise when they’re supposed to be quiet.
- Inattentiveness. Kids with ADHD are easily distracted. They may have trouble listening to directions, may be forgetful, and may get off track before finishing the task at hand.
- Impulsivity. Being impulsive can make it difficult for a child to wait, may cause them to blurt out answers, or may cause them to do things before asking for permission, such as taking items that aren’t theirs or engaging in risky behaviors.
If teachers are looking to prevent this behavior, withholding recess for kids with ADHD is not an effective disciplinary method. One study found that on days participants with ADHD didn’t have recess, their levels of inappropriate behaviors were higher than on days they had recess. Rather than taking away something that will actually help students, teachers should consider the underlying causes of inappropriate behavior in the classroom –– such as issues with medication –– and together, teachers, administrators, and parents should strive to come up with a solution for that student.
Engaging Students With ADHD
Here are a few suggestions that could create an improved classroom environment for students with ADHD and their peers:
- Posted classroom rules
- Immediate feedback
- Weekly summaries for guardians or caregivers
- Regular meetings with guardians or caregivers
- Positive reinforcement system
- Individual Education Plan (IEP) for the student
- Whole-class interventions, so as not to single out a student
- Physical activity scheduled regularly over the course of the day
Physical activity is a core part of any child’s day, but especially for a child with ADHD. Parents, teachers, and administrators should work together to make sure that all children are receiving the care and support they need during school. If a parent of a child with ADHD continues to face the issue of recess being withheld, they should send their child in with a doctor’s note stating that their child must have recess every day.
Alternatives to Taking Away Recess
The ideal solution is to get to the root of the problem to prevent it from occurring in the first place. Disruptive behavior in the classroom such as fidgeting, getting up without permission, and not paying attention is often cause for disciplinary action. But by making a few adjustments to the classroom routine and activities, teachers may be able to prevent this disruptive behavior.
We know kids have a lot of energy, and this can get them into trouble with teachers who want them to focus on a task. To combat high energy levels throughout the day, here are a few options to get kids out of their chairs and moving while also learning or being productive:
- Assign errands or chores. When students are beginning to fidget and lose focus, send them on an errand to the office or instruct them to organize bookshelves or clean their desktops with disinfectant wipes. Have them practice spelling words or math problems at the same time to keep them productive and learning.
- Play educational games. Hold a mini spelling bee, divide the class into two teams for a multiplication competition, or play a game of telephone that involves facts from their social studies lesson. Kids will stay engaged in activities that interest them and get them out of their chairs, and they’ll have a better chance of retaining the information they learned.
- Take breaks throughout the day. Ever heard of the Pomodoro Technique? Focus on a task for 25 minutes. When that time is up, take a five-minute break. Incorporating short breaks throughout the school day gives students a chance to refresh so they can tackle the tasks ahead of them with the focus and intensity necessary. Short bursts of activity such as jumping in place or even dancing can break up the monotony of the day, giving kids a short but much-needed rest and curbing their energy levels.
Here are a few simple movements that can be incorporated throughout the day into physical activity breaks:
- Arm circles
- High knees
- Cross knee lifts
- Jumping jacks
- Kicks: front, side, and cross
- Side shuffle
- Step touch
Want to take things a step further? For more specific activities, consider incorporating the following into your classroom:
- Unwind before a test: Establish a tradition of a five-minute break before every test to help students relax and prepare before sitting back down.
- Chair aerobics: First, students push their chairs out and away from their desks. Then they sit up straight and keep their ankles together for leg lifts. Instruct students to lift their legs straight out in front of them for 10 repetitions. Then, with another student standing behind their chair to hold for balance, students extend their right legs out at a 45-degree angle for another 10 repetitions. Finally, they’ll do the same with their left legs.
- Write your name in the air: Encourage students to use different body parts –– such as their elbow, foot, finger, and head –– to write their names in the air.
- Dance: Call out moves one at a time to create a sequence. For example, first call out a stomp with the left foot. Then call out two hops. Students will then stomp with their left feet, then hop twice. Add a few moves to see how long students can remember the sequence!
- Play cards: For this activity, you can use a standard deck of cards or create your own. With a standard deck of cards, assign a physical activity to each suit. Pass out a card to every student and instruct them to perform the assigned activity for that suit for 20 seconds, or base repetitions on the number on their cards. Have students pass their cards to their neighbors for additional activity.
- True or false: Ask students true or false questions to review for tests and quizzes. If the answer is true, students touch their toes five times. If the answer is false, students do arm circles for 10 seconds.
- Stretch: To loosen tense muscles, guide students through some stretches. They can reach up, touch their toes, bring their knees to their chests, and perform arm circles. Instruct students to hold each stretch for 15 to 20 seconds.
- Student leader: In this exercise, one student will stand in front of the class and lead a five-minute break. They’ll select activities for themselves and their classmates to perform. This will get them out of their seats and using their creativity.
Should Kids Have Recess? The Push to Keep It
The threat against recess doesn’t only come from teachers and administrators who use it as a form of punishment. Less money in school budgets, limited access to safe playgrounds and parks, and the increasing specialization in sports that increases costs and causes barriers to entry are all factors that are threatening recess’s place in the school day.
While many schools across the states are shortening or cutting recess altogether, other districts and parents are fighting back. Two mothers in Orlando, Florida noticed their children’s frustration with their lack of daily recess time and petitioned their state government. A statewide recess mandate was then put into effect after three years of effort. In Chicago, parents successfully pushed for recess to be reintroduced to schools in the area. In New Haven, parents worked with their school district to set a mandatory recess policy for every student. Both areas established policies that recess cannot be withheld for disciplinary reasons.
If parents and school districts work together, awareness of the importance of recess can spread and change can be implemented.
Playgrounds From Playworld
Playgrounds are a key component of recess. Playgrounds give kids equipment they can use to develop their motor skills and to expend energy. Recess isn’t just about quantity of time –– it’s also about quality. Spending 45 minutes standing on a blacktop won’t be nearly as beneficial to kids as 20 minutes of time on a playground, where they can climb, jump, and have fun. Playworld has been in operation for over 40 years. We care about craftsmanship, sustainability, and safety. With us, you can trust that kids are getting a quality recess. Contact us today to equip your school with the playground equipment it needs.