Right to Recess

In a scene from my favorite TV show, My Crazy Ex Girlfriend, a clueless shopper holds up a plastic wiffle ball and bat set and asks the clerk if a 10 year old would like it.  She responds with, “You must be old if you think kids still play outside.”  

As much as that line makes me cringe, it’s true.  Most kids don’t play outside as much anymore.  One place where kids should be able to play outside everyday is at school, during recess!  Yet recess has been severely scaled back or cut entirely in a number of schools and districts around the country. The trend can be traced back to the No Child Left Behind era when districts were put under extreme pressure to show swift academic progress.  They began to cram as many instructional minutes into the day as possible, at the expense of recess and other important areas of the school day.  To make matters worse, many districts have cut PE teachers or shortened PE classes.

In Arizona, recess times vary from school to school and are determined by a district’s governing board or administrators.  The state doesn’t have any minimum recess requirements, however, that could soon change.  Jesus Rubalcava, a State Representative and special education teacher in Buckeye, wrote and sponsored a bill, HB2082.  The bill asks for 50 minutes a day of unstructured recess time for all students kindergarten through fifth grade.  These recess requirements would be a minimum standard.  Read the bill here:  https://legiscan.com/AZ/text/HB2082/2017

It’s not the first recess bill proposed in Arizona but it’s the first in recent years to have a minimum number of minutes in the language.  A bill was passed in 2008 requiring all Arizona school districts to conduct a public meeting to consider providing 30 minutes a day of structured physical activity.  Unfortunately, most school districts decided not to change their recess policies.

I think the real beauty of this bill is not only the amount of minutes as a standard, but that it provides autonomy for schools and teachers, where the needs of students can be best met in their own context, to decide how and when the 50 minutes will be spent.  It’s almost like the bill was written by a teacher (it was)!  

It gets even better.  You know those sad-faced kids along the wall at recess who are missing recess as a punishment?  Those kids are the ones who need recess the most.  Every student should have the right to recess.  This bill stipulates that recess cannot be withheld as a punishment (at least without notifying the parent first).

I figured if I really wanted to get to the heart of the matter, I would need to ask my people: my 65 ten and eleven year old fifth graders.  I had a baseline understanding of their feelings about recess.  Leading them from the cafeteria to the playground and witnessing their hurry to get there is a big indicator of their love of recess time.  A 7th grader from my school, along with his 4th grade brother, had recently approached the teachers about a petition they wanted all the students to sign regarding recess minutes that they hoped to present to our governing board.  This sparked some great conversation in my classroom.  

The main points made by my students were that recess was important to them so they could release energy, get fresh air, take  a break from learning, and have time to talk and play with their friends.  One student claimed recess impacts him socially for life, because it builds life and leadership skills.  Well-played.  Another student quickly accessed a website showing statistics about obesity, diabetes and lack of physical activity in today’s youth ( a future doctor? psychiatrist?).  Another brilliant scholar quoted research on how physical movement increases test scores and memory.  Tell me again how this brilliant and resourceful generation isn’t going to solve the world’s problems?

I started doing some research on my own.  There is a connection between physical education and learning.  Cognitive processing and academic performance depend on regular breaks from concentrated classroom work and learning.

The argument that is often presented is that most students receive physical education classes already.  Why do they need recess, too?  Recess is a complement to, but not a replacement for, physical education class. Physical education is an academic discipline.  Unstructured recess provides creative, social, and emotional benefits of play.  Students learn communication, cooperation, sharing, problem solving, and coping skills.

I also started noticing that many of my students plow through their lunches because they are so desperate to get to recess.  Research shows  that increased recess means less food waste because kids slow down to actually eat their lunch instead of rushing through it.

Observing students after recess is enlightening.  Students have increased attention and focus after physical movement and brain breaks.  But nothing beats the full-on focus only found after time to relax your cognitive skills and work on physical activity and bonding socially.

What can you do as a teacher, administrator or parent?  

  • Contact your legislator to support the bill HB2082 (reference it is schools; daily recess time).  Don’t know who your legislator is?  Find out here http://www.azleg.gov/findmylegislator/and then email or call.  Share this action with others!  
  • Discuss alternatives for withholding recess as a punishment at your school.  
  • Recess time tends to decrease as students age.  Middle school teachers will tell you that adolescents cannot work until their social needs are met.  This bill will help our older students gain more recess time, too.

The scariest part of my school day is walking to pick up my class from specials as the first graders are making their way from the cafeteria across campus to the playground.  The recess aides maintain a line order and “walking feet” until the students get a glimpse of the playground and then all bets are off.  The orderly line becomes a screaming river of six year olds.  My take-away (as I’m dodging first graders, Matrix-style) is don’t stand between a child and recess time.

Dodging first graders, Matrix-style



Beth Maloney

I am in my twentieth year of teaching and enjoy every minute of my time in the classroom. I have taught kindergarten, third grade, and currently teach fifth-grade science and social studies in Surprise, Arizona. I am an enthusiastic public school advocate. I am a National Board Certified Teacher and a Candidate Support Provider for the Arizona K12 Center, where I coach and mentor other teachers undergoing the rigorous National Board certification. I am the past president and co-founder of the Arizona National Board Certified Teacher Network and president and founder of the Arizona Chapter of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. I am honored to be Arizona’s 2014 Teacher of the Year and appreciate having the opportunity to represent the teachers of Arizona. I love talking with and learning from other teachers around the world. I strongly believe that teacher voice in the public education dialogue is the best way to make change for the better for all students.

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