Originally published Oct. 17, 2019 by Harvard Edcast.

By Jill Anderson

Sociologist Rebecca London knows recess is an afterthought in many schools day. Too often, it’s just seen as a break or a way to get some physical exercise for kids. She thinks it’s time that educators rethink how to use that time to better support young students. In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, London shares ideas from her new book, Rethinking Recess, how to create a more inclusive recess, and why taking away recess — especially as punishment — is a bad idea for kids.

Jill Anderson: I am Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. Rebecca London is a sociologist who studies recess. She knows recess is an afterthought in many schools day. Too often, it’s just seen as a break or a way to get some physical exercise for kids. She wants to see us rethink how to use that time to better support young students. In recent years, there’s been news about states mandating recess. So I asked her what the current state of recess is across the country.

Rebecca London: Well, recess is a really interesting space in the school day because it’s a time when there could be a lot of academic and social and emotional physical growth happening, but there isn’t necessarily all that happening. It’s often a blank space in the middle of the day. It’s a break. And so people think, “Well, I don’t have to pay attention to it.” But really, what we know is you do have to pay attention to it because it’s a time when children can experience a lot of growth. It’s also a time when they can experience boredom or bullying. It can result in disciplinary incidents that go to the principal’s office. So generally, I’m interested in those kinds of spaces in children’s lives, where it’s this confluence of developmental opportunities with some attention to them can be a really amazing time to build all kinds of developmental skills.

Jill Anderson: We’ve been hearing a lot about recess around the country and in different ways. And can you provide like a snapshot of what elementary school recess looks like across America today?

Rebecca London: So elementary school recess is actually not available everywhere across the US today. We know that in urban schools and schools serving low-income populations and schools serving predominantly children of color, there isn’t always recess. Sometimes the children don’t get any time to run outside in the unstructured opportunity for play after their lunch or before their lunch. And even when they do, it’s often less time than their peers in other schools get. In some schools, they’ve really paid attention to what happens during that time. And there’s activities, there’s equipment, there are caring adults who are helping the children or connecting with them. And in other schools, there hasn’t been that attention to recess.

And so sometimes there’s a little bit of equipment, sometimes not, and then sometimes there’s opportunities for activities and games, sometimes not. Children are often left up to their own devices to figure out what to do with that time. Sometimes the adults are really caring and providing support and maybe turning a jump rope or refereeing a soccer game or a basketball game and sometimes not. Sometimes they’re looking at their phones or connecting with their friends and not engaging with children. So right now, I would say we’re in a place where we’re paying a lot of attention to recess. There’s actually a fair amount of state legislation happening. The CDC has guidelines out on what a healthy recess should look like. The American Academy of Pediatrics has guidelines out on what a healthy recess should look like. This is our moment to capitalize on all of that and just scheduling the minutes in the day isn’t enough to ensure that children are experiencing a safe and healthy and inclusive recess.

Jill Anderson: We know play is good for kids, and that has been proven time and time again. But at the same time, it’s interesting how we focus so much on improving all these aspects of education, but it seems like we’ve ignored recess a little bit.

Rebecca London: Well, and while we haven’t ignored recess, we’re focusing on it as an opportunity for physical activity. That’s how states are framing it in their legislation. It’s an opportunity to get those 60 crucial minutes per day of physical activity that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends. But what’s really interesting is play is the way that children learn. We know that from a very young age on play is how they learn. So right now, for instance, a lot of schools are using curriculum on social and emotional learning, SEL, that’s very big right now. And this curriculum is offered in classrooms with classroom teachers.

But the chance for children to practice those skills, to think about self-regulation, what am I going to do if I lose this game? To think about collaboration and sharing, to think about conflict resolution, how am I going to resolve a conflict? The ball is in, the ball is out. Their chance to practice these skills, the only unstructured time during the school day is recess. And so if we’re not offering them an opportunity with meaningful engagement in play and in an inclusive safe environment to practice these skills, these curricula aren’t going to have the opportunity to take hold in the same way.

Jill Anderson: So in your research, you talk about organized recess and high-quality recess. So what is high-quality, organized recess look like?

Rebecca London: So there’s this debate in the literature about structured versus unstructured play. So structured play is more like a physical education class. There’s an adult who’s leading a class, all the kids are participating in the same activity. They don’t really have any choice. Unstructured play is we’re putting you out there on the play yard. Maybe there’s equipment, maybe there’s not. And kids have free reign to design whatever games and activities they want to play. And some schools I think that works well. And the schools that I’ve been to, low-income urban schools around the country, there needs to be something of a hybrid. So organized recess is an opportunity for there to be a lot of free choice, different kinds of games available, but organized in a way so that everybody has a chance to play, everybody can be included, and everyone has a chance to have fun.

So the ways that schools can do that are first of all to identify the games that kids like to play, they want to be playing, and find a place on their play yard outside or inside if it’s going to be an indoor recess where those games can happen in separate spaces so that there’s not jump rope running through the basketball game, there’s not soccer tag games running through the soccer game. So every game has its own space. And then the second step is to identify a set of common rules to the games so that children they know how to play, they understand when they’re out or when they’re in. We don’t have to spend a lot of time arguing about whether that rule is part of the game or not part of the game. We all are operating under the same set of rules.

One of the schools that I visited was trying to do this, establishing a common set of rules with the game four square. I don’t know if you’re familiar with four square. There is markings for four different squares on the ground and then kids play with the ball and they bounce the ball from square to square. There’s four people standing in the square. And there’s a million different ways to play this game. There’s different rules. They can double bounce, they can single bounce. Sometimes at this particular school, the person who was in the King spot or the Queen spot, the number one spot got to make the rules for the rest of the game. So the rule changed every single time a kid rotated into that spot. And the child in charge always made the rules to their best advantage. And so if you weren’t a kid who could play by those rules, you never got a chance to play.

And so the school decided, you know what? We’re not going to have that anymore. We’re going to allow anybody to play. We’re going to establish a common set of rules and that’s how it’s going to go. And there was a rebellion at the school. Those kids, the parents especially, you’re ruining recess for my kids. And so the school decided to try a hybrid and they said, “Okay, we’ll keep one four square court with the old school rules, and we’ll have another four square court with the new school rules, and we’ll see which one the students like better.” Well, by the end of the school year, everybody liked the new court rules, the new school rules better because they were fair, everybody had a chance to play and the old school rules kind of dwindled. So it took a little while to get used to having this common set of rules for the game. But after a little while, the kids got to see how beneficial that was for them and then they had more of an opportunity to play.

Okay, so the organized recess is about finding spots for the games and coming up with a common set of rules for the games. And then the next piece is about what the adults are doing. And it’s about adults supporting children’s play at recess. So know not all adults who are out there monitoring recess want to throw on their tennis shoes and run around and play basketball with kids and that’s fine. But they could help kids to resolve conflicts when they arise as they do when children play. There’s always going to be a conflict, is the ball in, is the ball out? Help them to resolve those conflicts. They can be a positive supporter of play. They can cheer for kids, they can remind them to play fair, they can remind them to pass the ball, they can do inactive ways of supporting play, like turning a jump rope. I’ve seen a lot of adults standing on play yards, turning jump ropes and getting to know the kids that way.

So it’s about positive engagement, pro-social engagement with the children, not just being there to make sure that they’re safe and yelling at them if they’re running on the blacktop as they’re not supposed to do in most schools, but to really be a positive supportive of play. Get to know the kids that way. Those are the three key ways to organize recess. In the book, I talk about a lot of different steps, other ways that you can centralize the equipment disbursement, and that’s a role that kids can actually play at their own recess so that teachers aren’t responsible for monitoring equipment, equipment doesn’t get lost as much. If there’s a centralized checkout available, then students have an opportunity for leadership if they’re the ones who are running that checkout. So there’s a lot of other things that go into it as well.

Jill Anderson: Right, do you see organized recess affecting school climate at other times of the day like when the kids are not in recess?

Rebecca London: Well, that’s what we hear and there was a randomized controlled trial done on this. By organizing recess, what we find is that children are more engaged. And when they’re more engaged in play, there’s less opportunity for all of the negative things that can come out of recess. So one of the things that we hear from teachers is that after recess, that time when they go to pick their students up after they’ve had recess is their most stressful time of day because they know that their students are going to come back into the classroom feeling unsatisfied and potentially upset about what happened during their recess time if they felt excluded or they had an argument with someone or their game didn’t go the way they wanted it to or it never really even got started.

And so by having an increased level of engagement in play at recess, teachers tell us students are coming back feeling much more satisfied, much more ready to learn. They can settle their classes in a much shorter period of time, whereas it might have taken them 8 or 9 minutes, 10 minutes to settle their classes down after recess. Before organized recess came in, after, it might take them just a minute or two to get their kids… get them a drink of water and get them settled and ready to learn. So they’re actually gaining time in their classroom learning by having an organized recess. And that affects their stress levels. So we know school climate is not just about children, but it’s about how adults are feeling in their school. And if everyone’s feeling a little bit less stressed, there’s not a line out the principal’s door for disciplinary incidents that refer from recess. Teachers aren’t spending as much time resolving conflicts from their students outside of recess. That does build school climate definitely.

Jill Anderson: I thought it was so interesting some of the information about discipline and particularly how often teachers will withhold recess as an activity. Can you talk a little bit more about why that isn’t a good idea?

Rebecca London: Withholding recess either because students haven’t behaved appropriately or because they’re missing schoolwork is a very common practice in elementary schools. And when I talked to teachers about it, they tell me that it’s really the thing that kids care about the most. And so they use it as a way of getting kids to behave and finish up their work. The problem is that by withholding recess, not only are you withholding a break, and we know that breaks are important, even adults take breaks. Everybody takes breaks. You need a moment to reset and recharge, and that’s an important part of the school day. But beyond that, it’s often the same children who have recess withheld over and over again.

What we hear is that it’s not just a random kid every day, but it’s often the same children who have behavioral problems day after day and have recess withheld. And what we know about that is that when we’re removing children from an important developmental setting as recess is, because it helps them to build those social and emotional skills, those skills that they need for self regulation and conflict resolution and cooperation and sharing, by withholding that opportunity to practice those skills, we’re actually holding children back. And especially for withholding that opportunity day after day after day, what we’re teaching children is that they don’t belong. They don’t belong at recess, they don’t belong with their peers. In the book, I talk about this as a step ladder into the school to prison pipeline. When you tell children from a very early age that they don’t belong, they begin to believe that about themselves, and then they begin to act as if they don’t belong.

Jill Anderson: What would be a better way to handle a situation like that? I mean, for teachers, they’re looking forward to that break themselves to send kids to recess.

Rebecca London: Yeah, it’s often when they take their lunch. So they have to have that break. There’s a lot of different ways to incentivize children to behave and do their work. One is to incentivize with recess. So instead of saying, “I’m going to withhold this recess that you already have scheduled,” say, “If you all get your work done and you’re all behaving well, you can have an additional recess. I’ll take you out for 10 more minutes.”

Jill Anderson: Oh, yeah.

Rebecca London: So to use recess, but as an incentive as opposed to as a punishment, there’s all kinds of ideas about how to get students to behave in class and how to make reparations for the misbehaviors so they can write a letter, an apology letter, instead of having the recess withheld. They can be incentivized by getting to choose the book that we read that day, or there’s a lot of different ways that you can turn behavior around positively. And you know what’s interesting is that states are beginning to legislate this. By my count, there are at least nine states right now that do not allow recess to be withheld…

Jill Anderson: Interesting.

Rebecca London: … as a punishment or for missed schoolwork.

Jill Anderson: Do they mandate that recess has to happen because I was looking into this, there’s quite a few states that do have that mandate in place, but they don’t mandate necessarily a certain amount of time? Am I understanding that right?

Rebecca London: Yeah, that’s right. The data that I relied on is from a survey that was conducted by the CDC with SHAPE America. SHAPE America’s the physical education professional association. And they found that there were nine states that said that recess is on the books and their state regs that recess cannot be withheld for punishment or from missed schoolwork. Not all of those states mandate recess.

Jill Anderson: Interesting.

Rebecca London: There are currently about 12 or 13 states that require recess for… usually, it’s a minimum of 20 minutes per day. And for me, I feel like 20 minutes is the absolute minimum. More would be better probably. And like in Finland, the students get 15 minutes of recess for every hour of instruction. I think we’re a little bit far away from that here in the US. But if there could be two recesses in the day, maybe one in the morning and one at lunch, or one at lunch and one in the afternoon depending on the bell schedule to allow students just to have that time to take a break and reset, what we know from the research is that this does not detract from student learning.

Jill Anderson: To change to an organized recess, is that an easy thing to do or is it hard to do? Does it require a lot of training and things to make that happen or even hiring additional people?

Rebecca London: It requires a commitment. It may not take a lot of money, but it requires a commitment on the part of somebody who has some decision-making authority. I was at one school in an East Coast urban center and it was actually the school nurse who took on recess at that school. So that person decided we really need to do something better than what we’ve got going on. That person wrote some grants connected with the leadership at the school and really was able to make a change in how recess went. So it doesn’t have to be the principal. I’ve been to a lot of schools where it’s the counselor, or a behavioral specialist, or even the PE teacher, or even a really committed recess monitor. Somebody who’s already at recess who says, “We could be doing this better.” And there are all kinds of training opportunities that are available to work with adults who are out at recess. It’s not a huge change that needs to happen, but there’s a lot of commitment because there’s a lot of legwork that has to happen. But once it’s in place, it pretty much runs itself.

Jill Anderson: For so many of us we’re familiar with old school recess, where it was just you kind of ran around and did whatever, it was very free, and I wonder if you get a lot of pushback or people just don’t understand. They feel like this is imposing more restrictions on kids.

Rebecca London: And you know what I would say to that, if your school has a recess that is totally unregulated and it’s going well, then great, stick with it. If that’s what your students like and they can organize themselves and come up with games to play without beating each other up and without people feeling excluded and feeling bad during recess, then that’s a recess that’s working. But there’s a lot of recesses that aren’t like that, and they need some help figuring out how to make things better. I’ve been to school where children are engaged in physical fights on the ground where adults don’t know how to encourage play, where kids are standing in line for the entire 15 minutes that they’re outside waiting to go back into their class because they don’t feel safe. I’ve been to places where it’s just not working and they’re looking to make a change, and this is a change that we know works.

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