Several years ago, a team of sociologists flew from California to an East Coast school to observe the kindergarteners’ recess for their research. The team waited on the playground, but the children never showed up. When they later asked the principal why, he told them that the lunch staff had held the students back as punishment for misbehavior.
“That just tells you something about the culture of how easy it is to dispense of this really important time for kids at a whim,” said Rebecca London, a sociologist who was on the research team and now teaches at the University of California at Santa Cruz. “There’s no evidence whatsoever that withholding recess elicits any kind of behavior that anybody wants. It’s not an evidence-based practice. There’s no research [supporting] it at all.”
What research (including London’s) has shown is that recess is extremely important to childhood development and learning. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that kids have access to it. Specialists think the opportunity to play with peers undirected by an adult — the kind of play children get at recess — is so critical to development that children should not do without it during the school day.
Yet only at least 10 states require schools to provide daily recess. This year, Washington and California are considering bills that would, if passed, make it mandatory for schools to provide recess. London and other researchers want legislatures and educators to know that recess is an important part of the school day, not a break from it.
No federal agency consistently tracks recess time at schools, according to London and other researchers I spoke with. But some surveys conducted by states, agencies like the CDC or advocacy groups show recess declining and that students may not be getting all the recess time recommended by experts. And other studies show that access to recess is affected by the same class and race aspects that shape a lot of American life: Low-income students and students of color in under-resourced schools tend to have less.
Though there’s less data on how often recess is taken away as a form of punishment, it’s been well-established that Black, Latino and Native American students, especially boys, are more likely to be punished at school in general and, therefore, may be disproportionately likely to have their recess taken away. Based on her experience at that East Coast school, London suspects the practice of withholding recess is widespread and common.
Recess is largely considered optional. School administrators often view it as a privilege for kids, not a component of education itself. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the school districts in Atlanta, Chicago and other cities eliminated recess entirely, in favor of extra class time they hoped would help boost test scores. Surveys taken throughout the 2000s and 2010s showed recess times getting whittled down. And the amount students get can vary from school to school, and from classroom to classroom, making it hard to gather data on it, said Julie McCleery, the director of research-practice partnerships at the Center for Leadership in Athletics at the University of Washington.
That trend helped prompt the American Academy of Pediatrics to issue its new guidelines in 2013, arguing that recess is a critical component of the school day. They distinguished recess, which would have adult supervision but not adult direction, from other physical outlets like P.E. classes. Recess, they report, gives kids the freedom to problem-solve, navigate emotional problems with their peers and independently learn how to interact in the world. Other reports show that having unstructured downtime also benefits children in the classroom, aiding them with memory and cognition. Because of data like this, the AAP guidelines specified that recess “should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.”
After watching recess decline, educators, parents and advocacy groups began to advocate for a return to recess around the country, but it didn’t become a priority in many states. “There’s this huge gap between what we know kids need and what we know is actually good for learning and how much we allot time for that,” said William V. Massey, a professor at Oregon State University who studies the impacts of recess.
Bills introduced to protect recess tend to either not progress through state legislatures, or get watered down. The bill to require recess in Washington passed the state House this month. But it now mandates only 30 minutes of recess instead of the 45 minutes the bill began with, according to McCleery. Protections that would have prevented recess from being taken away as punishment were also scaled back, and now that practice is discouraged, McCleery said. “Teachers do want to have that as a possibility in their toolbox of how to manage behavior,” she said. The California bill, as introduced, would not allow teachers to take recess away.
Until recently, the argument against requiring recess was that schools had too many other priorities, already overstretched resources and too little time in the school day, the researchers told me. Advocates hope that has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic, as the social and emotional needs of students have become more pressing. State Sen. Josh Newman, the California lawmaker who introduced the state’s recess bill, said that he hopes this time provides an opportunity to reprioritize what kids need in schools. “One of those [priorities] … is making sure that we address all of the dimensions of the kids’ social-emotional learning,” he said. “Recess, for being kind of an old-school word, is really important to that.”
CORRECTION (March 23, 5:00 p.m.): A previous version of this story did not include Illinois as a state with a recess requirement. This has been updated as has the total count of states with requirements.