In Praise of Recess

By Heather Olsen and Nicholas J. Pace

It’s always amusing when children respond to the age-old “What’s your favorite class” question with, “Recess!” Many of us answered the question the same way as the youngsters do. Recess, we know, is an essential component of the elementary school day. Research points to the importance of outdoor play and how essential it is to the well-being of students.

A 2010 study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation revealed that 96 percent of principals surveyed believe that recess has a positive impact on social development. Nearly eight in 10 principals in the same study reported that recess has a positive impact on academic achievement. Despite this, many districts have slashed recess in response to increasing pressures related to NCLB and a drive to increase test scores.

School leaders may find it hard to achieve a balance. On one hand, pressure to avoid assorted watch lists continues to intensify, budgets are stressed, and more instructional time must be found. On the other hand, schools seek to temper this high-stakes atmosphere by meeting students’ affective, developmental, and social needs. A growing number of schools have chosen to eliminate or reduce recess time in an effort to increase instructional time and test scores.

To further investigate current recess trends, we at the National Program for Playground Safety, with the Educational Leadership program at the University of Northern Iowa, conducted a study of Iowa public school principals’ perceptions of recess and district playground policies. A summary of the findings offers good news for schools caught between the rock and hard place of the value of recess versus achievement pressure. The findings yielded four recommendations that can easily be implemented with little to no expense.

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