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When School Kids Lose Their Recess Time

When Donna James' fourth-grade son told her his teacher was taking his recess time away, the Fort Wayne, Indiana, dispatcher assumed this was so he'd have extra time to finish his assignments. "I was OK with it," she says. "Then one day I asked him, 'So what did you get done during recess?' And he said, 'Nothing.'"

Why not? "Because she makes me stand against the wall," he answered. Welcome to the wonderful world of recess withholding.

Most child development experts believe that kids need some unstructured run-around time during the day. The American Academy of Pediatrics has declared that "recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child's development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons." And yet schools aren't just shrinking the number of recess minutes per day in order to shoehorn in more class time and test prep: Many allow teachers to take away recess as a form of punishment.

Long Island's Patchogue-Medford School District is moving in the opposite direction. It has doubled the amount of lunch and recess time its students get from 40 to 80 minutes a day, with felicitous results: lower absenteeism and fewer disciplinary problems. "We would never take away math or reading or social studies," says superintendent Michael Hynes. "So why would we take away recess, where they learn just as much?"

That sounds like heaven to Mark Sullivan, an actor/broadcaster in Westerly, Rhode Island, who still seethes when recalling the time his fifth-grader got in trouble for popping a brown paper bag. At lunch the next day, they boy's punishment was to sit at the same table as the special needs kids and not get up till recess was over. "You don't treat special needs people as the penalty box," says Sullivan.

When I asked on Facebook if parents were seeing recess withheld, the answers cascaded in. "My kid misses recess most days because he has to rewrite his assignments due to poor handwriting." "Used regularly at my boys' elementary school as punishment…for using the restroom during 'non-break' times." "For not turning in a parent signature on a form." "For not filling in her reading log." "For being disruptive in class."

That last reason is particularly ironic, since recess is the best way for high-energy kids to blow off some steam in order to make it through the afternoon.

One teacher chimed in to defend the practice—"We work with kids who are coming to [us] from all sorts of situations. I think a lot of times, these kids need to be held accountable for poor decisions"—but most of the people who responded were parents with horror stories. Christine Davis, an organizer with Arizonans for Recess, forwarded me a front-page story from Phoenix's North Central News showing a gaggle of second graders sitting against posts. A parent snapped the photo "because district leadership was denying that recess was being withheld," she says.

Davis' group tried to get individual school systems to drop the practice, which the state Department of Education had already condemned. But it struggled to achieve buy-in, so the group decided to lobby the state legislature. That body will vote on a recess mandate this spring.

Other recess initiatives are underway across the country. Erin Dougherty was just elected to the Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, school board on a pro-recess ticket. "Tenacity, perseverance, sociability, all those soft skills," she says, are the ones students will need in the uncertain economy ahead. They're also the ones developed during recess.

At the elementary school Shannah Pace's son attended in Plano, Texas, "the list of rules about things they couldn't do at recess was longer than the things they could do," the stay-at-home mom says. "No Red Rover—somebody might get hurt, or their feelings might get hurt. They were not allowed to have balls, jump ropes, any toys. They had this ginormous play structure, but there was no running on the structure, no jumping off it. One person at a time on the slide. They had one lonely little tree on the playground that they chopped down because the kids were trying to climb it."

Then one day her son and his friend were playing "spies." A teacher misinterpreted it as tag—verboten!—and they were made to stand against the wall for the rest of the period.

That's when the Paces decided to homeschool their children. Four years later, when they pass the old elementary during recess, her son says, "Look at those poor kids."

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  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    And they say libertarians don't like people! If this is the way to like kids, then I like statists. I want them all to stand against the wall, I like them so much.

  • Sometimes a Great Notion||

    "That body will vote on a recess mandate this spring."

    5000 hours of mandated training before you can get your recess license. Students will be required to turn over 1/3 of all snack packs to the teacher before entering the yard. Only pre-approved activities from a list made by the Central Scrutinizer.

  • GeneralWeygand||

    The Central Scrutinizer

    That's my title with the Federal Bikini Inspector bureau

  • Illocust||

    I actually don't fault the schools on the no fun allowed rules during recess time. If any of those precious angels break a bone trying to climb a tree, the school and the teacher in charge of watching them is going to get their ass sued. Until we get a waiver that will actually hold up in court, that patents accept their child can get hurt during recess time. It would be stupid of any large scale schooling institution to allow kids to do things that could get them hurt.

  • Cloudbuster||

    Government schools don't really care about that, despite their protestations. If they get sued and lose, the government pays -- with the parents' tax dollars.

  • Chasman1965||

    Not really. Schools do worry about lawsuits. Lawsuits come out of district money, and that takes away from the discretionary money the school admin has to spend.

  • Arcxjo||

    But they all have legally-mandated health insurance.

  • Longtobefree||

    Four thousand years ago, I would walk 5 blocks (level ground, rarely in snow, wearing shoes) to school unaccompanied by my parents. Of course there were lots of other kids walking to school at the same time, and lots of parents (and other adults) were sitting on the front porch sipping coffee.
    However, school started at 9am, and ended at 3PM. We had an hour for lunch, when we were allowed to leave campus (even in grammar school grades), and two 30 minute recess periods where we had access to the horrors of see-saws, heavy wooden swings on uncovered metal chains, 11 foot tall sliding boards, and multiple 'jungle gyms' 6 to 10 feet tall.
    Despite all this, our teachers were able to teach us all the required course material in the few minutes remaining in the day. I do not remember any withholding of recess time for any reason. Punishment was either a stern talking to by the principal, on staying after school for 15 or 30 minutes depending on the offense. That was pretty bad because it meant that sides had already been chosen for the after school ball games, and you had to wait until the next game, or until some other kid had to go home.

    The teachers have not changed all that much, it is the political changes in the school system that are messed up. I am not sure it is even possible to 'fix' the system anymore, but eliminating the federal level department of education would be a good start. It would move a lot of tax dollars one step closer to the voters as well.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    It would also help to eliminate the teacher unions, whose only task is to ramp up agitation so they can seem so much more necessary, and to make sure that no customer dues paying member teacher is ever fired.

  • sarcasmic||

    The absence of any fun playground equipment is a result of lawsuits, not the feds.

  • Chasman1965||

    Yup

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    I would debate that teachers have not changed. Maybe I was the exception, but I had predominantly intelligent teachers. Many of my classmates - an inordinate number went on to be teachers. I see them on Facebook with bad grammar, complaining about how hard the job is and how they can't wait for summer break or vacation days. I think the standard for being a teacher has gone way down.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    I think the standard for being a teacher has gone way down.

    I suspect that at one time teachers actually had to know the subject they were teaching very well. Maybe not to an expert, Ph.D. level, but pretty damn well.

    Now, I suspect they probably just study the common core lesson plan a day or two in advance and just regurgitate it back to the kids. I suspect that's where you see insane stories like this one where teachers mark correct answers wrong simply because the kid (I assume) didn't do it exactly what the answer key showed.

  • silver.||

    "I think the standard for being a teacher has gone way down."

    In general, that is true. A cursory search will turn up countless similar articles. One article speculates that in the past half-century highly competent women have migrated to other fields [1].

    Standardized test scores aren't everything, of course, but there is also significant grade inflation in education schools [2]. The problems peaked around 2000 [3], and have been declining somewhat since then [4].

    One popular argument is that the pay is too low to attract talent, but don't be fooled, the average national teacher salary is $58,000 [5]. About $9,000 more than the overall average [6]. Some avoid the profession because of the myth of low wages, others choose the field and intentionally perpetuate the myth.

    2 link limit on comments is driving me insane, and I don't feel like trying any other workarounds, so let me know if you want sources 1-6.

  • Trainer||

    I agree that teachers have changed a lot since I was in school. All of my friends who are teachers now pretty much hate kids and decided to become teachers so they'd get the summer off. I was 18 month- 3 year old Montessori teacher for a while before I had my own kids and a lot of the classroom assistants were education majors. Their lack of general knowledge let alone various subjects was mind blowing. I remember one who wanted to teach science telling me that she had never heard of a chrysalis before and instead of being interested just said I made the word up.

  • Chasman1965||

    To some degree yes. Why? States are allowing people to get certified as teachers without having a degree in teaching. Any bachelor's degree, and they can get a temporary certificate to teach. We are getting people who's first experience in a classroom as a teacher is when it is their job. They don't have to go through the apprenticeship known as student teaching any more.

  • MichaelL||

    Where? I did some teaching of medical residents (as a senior general surgery resident), and I taught medical students gross anatomy and histology as a graduate assistant. From what I understood, I could not get a teaching job unless I had teaching courses on my resume! I would have been a great biology teacher! I did not finish my graduate degree in zoology. (no paper) But, I did complete my biological sciences BA. I would still love to teach, being disabled from a spinal cord injury (walking!) and a young 65! They could get out of paying me a pension, too!...(;-P...Why not?!

  • Libertarian||

    "Most child development experts believe that kids need some unstructured run-around time during the day"

    I may be going out on a limb here, but recess at a government school is not what I would call "unstructured." The kid was being punished. He didn't like it? So what. Or are we now saying that government is responsible for our kids not getting enough exercise?

  • sarcasmic||

    Or are we now saying that government is responsible for our kids not getting enough exercise?

    To a certain extent, yes. Government is responsible for kids getting less exercise at school. We can agree on that I hope.

    Then when the kid comes home, the parent must helicopter around the child whenever they go outside, else the parent faces a very real possibility of the cops coming and taking the child away. Can't even legally let the child play in the back yard without constant supervision.

    Gone are the days when the parents could say "Get lost Johnny, I don't want to see you until dinner time."

    Do that today and you're going to jail for child neglect.

    Now if you're a parent and you have things to do, you put the kid in front of the computer or television, and then go get stuff done. If you allow the child to get exercise and try to get stuff done at the same time, then you are a criminal.

    So I would say there is an argument to be made that government is responsible for kids not getting enough exercise.

  • Jalestra||

    Don't forget the 2-7 hours of homework as well.

  • Rhywun||

    recess at a government school is not what I would call "unstructured."

    It was in my day. I don't even remember anyone watching us.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    I don't even remember anyone watching us.

    I think we had maybe 1 playground monitor (whichever teachers drew the short straws I guess) for every ~100 or so kids. They were mostly just there to break up any fights that started or in case anyone fell off one of the bitchin' 8-10 foot high jungle gyms and got hurt. Both of which were vanishingly rare occurrences.

  • Ken Shultz||

    I have a friend who had a newborn, recently, and I was pretty surprised the way they coddle kids these days.

    To put it bluntly, the kid doesn't do a lick of work. He mostly just lays around sleeping all day, only waking up when he wants something--in which case he cries at the top of his lungs like a baby. I mean, the kid is so lazy, he doesn't even clean up after himself. I don't want to even get into his personal hygiene. Suffice it to say, the kid is lazy.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Report him and his parents to EPA for SuperFund cleanup, which we taxpayers will gladly pay for.

  • gormadoc||

    Does he even bother to feed himself?

  • Longtobefree||

    Was there a difference between the school counselor job and the King County Jail?

  • markm23||

    Yes - there are things they can't do to the prisoners in the jail...

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    I was denied recess for a full year once because the shoes I had to wear left nasty streak marks on the gym floor. Schools are stupid.

  • sarcasmic||

    That happened to me as well. Not banned for a full year though. Just until I convinced my parents to replace my shoes.

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    I had to wear boots on account of my feet.

  • operagost||

    The fact that you had recess INSIDE already raises questions.

  • SusanM||

    And what is Reason's stance regarding nap-time?

  • Trainer||

    Lights are dimmed and shades drawn between 1 and 2:30 daily at the Reason offices.

  • Cloudbuster||

    Home school. Government schools are child abuse.

  • Juice||

    Often so is homeschooling.

  • Trainer||

    When homeschooling magazines have ads for "rods" so that people can beat their kids and articles about how dads are supposed to "marry" their 12 year old daughters until they can give them away to a properly chosen husband, it makes you wonder but almost all CPS* cases of school age kids are for kids in schools.

    *I'm going say that based on my husband's work in CPS over 20 years and my 30 years of working with secular homeschoolers and say over 99% of CPS cases for school age children are for children in school.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Then one day her son and his friend were playing "spies." A teacher misinterpreted it as tag—verboten!—and they were made to stand against the wall for the rest of the period.

    Tag? Are you fucking kidding me? And we wonder why each generation seems to get more and more snowflaky.

    That's when the Paces decided to homeschool their children.

    Good decision.

  • Trainer||

    If we want tough kids we need to bring back unsupervised dodgeball to the playground on a daily basis.

  • damikesc||

    Same teachers then wonder "Why are these kids so fidgety and difficult to deal with?"

    Followed, years later, by "Why are these kids so slovenly and fat?"

  • silver.||

    I was a little bastard full of energy and temper tantrums in early school. One year in particular I had to sit out recess more days than not, and somewhat unsurprisingly my tantrums were worst after having to sit on the steps alone and watch everyone else play outside. Discipline didn't exactly work because I wasn't a reasonable person at 7. Ritalin was the official recommendation from the school because kids acting like kids warrants the use of powerful dopaminergic stimulants.

  • GeneralWeygand||

    unsurprisingly my tantrums were worst after having to sit on the steps

    As was your English

  • tiredteach||

    Teachers have very few options when they need to discipline a student. Taking away recess is sometimes the only option.

  • Trainer||

    Children need mostly running around time with a few breaks here and there to do academics.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Then one day her son and his friend were playing "spies." A teacher misinterpreted it as tag—verboten!—and they were made to stand against the wall for the rest of the period.

    Don't wanna end up against a wall like a spy, don't let a government official catch you like a spy.

  • Longtobefree||

    Good Point. So the teacher was playing the kid's game? Any abuse potential there?

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    The abuse usually happens when the teacher tries to make the kid play adult games.

  • GeneralWeygand||

    The abuse usually happens when the teacher tries to make the kid play adult games.

    guffaw

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    This is the kind of thing that convinces me our education "system" is in the hands of people who have little or no real understanding of children, and in fact don't even like children very much

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    This is the kind of thing that convinces me our education "system" is in the hands of people who have little or no real understanding of children, and in fact don't even like children very much

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