Get out and Play

The Importance of Recess in Public Schools

It seems intuitive, especially for a parent, that if a kid is asked to work for long stretches of time, that kid is going to need a break. When faced with an eight hour day that is spent essentially, “doing what you’re told”, it makes sense that, if you give children breaks to simply be children, they will, in turn, give more effort and energy back into being a student. In fact, national and international studies overwhelmingly support this claim.

When I was in school, even when I was in classrooms where the walls were covered in rainbows, the floors had dinosaur prints leading to a bookshelf, and the lady that sat in the big desk at the front of the classroom was my absolute favorite person in the world, it became a real job to be a good student each day. It became a job to not give into the occasional boredom, the exhaustion, and the simple longing for my own room when I had to be there day after day. It was work for me to be a student every day and, let’s be honest; being a student actually is work for today’s public school kids.

According to widely cited educational blogger and activist, Steven Singer, whose criticism of standardized testing culture and Common Core standards has been featured in publications like the Washington Post and The L.A. Progressive, there is a “push to bring so many adult skills and expectations lower and lower down the grades. […] You know how people say kindergarten is the new first grade? Well, it is.”

What children in public schools across the country are expected to do is strikingly different to what children were even ten years ago. Federal initiatives like the much demonized No Child Left Behind Act and more recently Race to the Top brought about an era of education that put standardized testing in the foreground. During Obama’s presidency, Microsoft Founder, Bill Gates and a team of almost exclusively non-educators, created a set of standards by which to drive what is taught in today’s schools. The standards developed under the new “Common Core” were done so in a decidedly backwards fashion. Singer explains that “the business world decided what students would need in order to be ‘college ready,’” and when deciding what students needed to learn, there were very few classroom teachers, elementary school teachers, or any experts on early childhood education consulted. And, of course, the business world is reaping the financial rewards of Common Core. The goliath educational corporation Pearson creates the standardized tests that districts administer, they create the curriculums that districts can buy to teach the standards, they create the remediation tools that districts can use to help students who aren’t meeting those standards, and Pearson, in case you didn’t figure out by now, is bringing in an astonishing sum as a result. Singer’s so frequently cited and referenced in the world of educational news because he has been so outspoken against the Common Core, which Singer decries as “developmentally inappropriate,” and the corporations that benefit.

“You know how people say that kindergarten is the new first grade? Well, it is.”
– Steven Singer, Educational blogger and activist

When we talk about school being a job for children today, there is no exaggeration or analogy in that statement. Ask a student who attends public elementary school what his or her day was like today and what you’ll likely get in response is phrasing that’s synonymous with the word “intense.” Chances are that that child has talked about learning objectives or meeting certain standards, has taken some type of assessment, and has practiced for a standardized exam. To be clear, by the time this hypothetical kid reaches second grade, he or she has already gone through countless rounds of standardized testing that began in kindergarten and has been subjected to meeting standards of education that were developed by the business world and not educators. So, remember when I said a student’s day is work, I mean that these kids are working. But this article isn’t about the Common Core and it isn’t about standardized tests or testing culture. This article is about recess.

“The schools in the poorest districts across the country tend to be the ones that see recess cut completely.”
– Steven Singer

Do you know that many public elementary schools across this country don’t have recess at all? Would you be surprised to learn that most state and local school districts do not have policies mandating any kind of daily break for elementary school students? Schools all around the U.S. see students move through eight hour school days with zero time built in for a guaranteed break that allows its students (ranging in age from 4 to 12) to simply not engage in any type of structured activity, let alone to simply play.

Today, recess is becoming an endangered species. While many districts in and around the Lehigh Valley, still see their elementary schools holding recess most days of the school week, parents everywhere cite stories of how daily recess is often traded in for extended instructional time, cut short to meet the demands of other lessons that need to be completed, or eliminated altogether as a punishment for students or whole classes that misbehave. States, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, have seen bills proposed over the past ten years that would require mandatory daily recess completely rejected, even though an overwhelming number of studies have proven that recess provides the type of unstructured time that allows students to play, get physical activity in, and allows their young brains a chance to essentially regroup and prepare for the next round of instruction. And it certainly bears acknowledging that the kind of soft skills that become essential to who students will be as fully formed adults like socializing, problem-solving, being creative, being a leader, becoming resilient, and being a friend are often learned and honed in the school yard during recess.

Without mandates in place to guarantee that students have a recess, students are at risk of losing it for a host of reasons including those just mentioned. Finger pointing and seeking out who is to blame on this issue along with nearly all educational issues tends to be misguided. Parents blame teachers and administrators, and at times, whole districts for issues that are largely driven by state and federal policies that leave our public education systems operating in what feels like a quagmire.

Singer doesn’t know if recess is necessarily a “civil right” as it stands right now, but he strongly and loudly advocates for a public education system where “children have the right to be children.” He argues that students “should have the right to an education that is developmentally appropriate and I think recess is part of that. Recess isn’t a waste of time and I think there are a lot of people who look at it that way […]. I think [recess] is symbolic of that idea of looking at the child and not looking at the finished product. Not seeing kids as widgets, I think, is [the civil right].”

If parents and districts want to help ensure that kids get the public education they deserve, complete with breaks that are long enough and frequent enough to help students learn and perform at optimum levels while preserving their ability to be children, then they need to put the pressure on the right entities. Turning attention towards Harrisburg, Trenton, and even Washington D.C. where bills proposing mandatory recess have been rejected, is a critical step towards changing the landscape of public education.

If you think it’s a losing fight, consider this—the people that created today’s educational system don’t actually live by it. Singer points out that the “kids that go to the wealthier private schools, Obama’s kids, Bill Gates kids, they get recess and it’s a darn shame that other kids who have to follow these schemes that they are throwing at us don’t.” Now, consider that schools in the poorest districts across the country tend to be the ones that see recess completely cut from its daily schedule. Recess, you see, isn’t just about play, it’s about equity and equality and it’s about time all of us fight for public school kids to have access to the type of developmentally appropriate education that they deserve. Recess is at the core of the fight and in lobbying for policy making that protects and guarantees recess, we instantly help the students get the metal and physical breaks they need to be children while they are at work for eight hours a day, five days a week. For Singer, “this [is] the right thing for everybody and not just for the rich.”

You can read more about issues affecting today’s public schools and follow Steven Singer by visiting his blog,

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