Recess - KaBOOM! News

Image courtesy of Arztsamui

A recent Education Week commentary does a nice job of reflecting a KaBOOM! key principle: play and education go hand-in-hand. The commentary, The Case for the New Kindergarten: Challenging and Playful, centers on the false dichotomy "that preschool and kindergarten must either be geared toward play and socioemotional development or focused on rigorous academic instruction."

We couldn't agree more. Play should be a part of well-rounded school day. That is, kids need to learn to read, write, do math and practice problem-solving, teamwork, and creativity, all of which are essential outcomes promoted by Common Core standards.

Furthermore, we know play helps children adjust to the school setting, and enhances their learning readiness, behavior, and problem solving skills. Play indirectly contributes to children learning more hard skills in school by mitigating behavioral problems and increasing academic engagement. Schools without recess face increased incidents of classroom behavioral problems, which detract from learning time. Studies show play may also increase children's capacity to store new information, as their cognitive capacity is enhanced when they are offered drastic changes in activity.

Unfortunately, play is disappearing in schools. A 2009 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that 30 percent of children surveyed had little to no recess in their school day. That's nearly one in three kids. This is in spite of research, such as a Gallup poll revealing that elementary school principals overwhelmingly believe recess has a positive impact not only on the development of students' social skills, but also on achievement and learning in the classroom.

As global competition increases, it is imperative that children develop a skill-set relevant to today's workforce and are able to approach challenges with creative solutions in order to navigate our complex, ever-changing world. Critical thinking and collaboration are integral to the jobs of the future—many times more so than hard skills—and balanced and active play helps to develop these skills.

It's time we stop thinking of early childhood education models as an "either or" proposition and value and implement holistic instruction. We encourage you to join the discussion and post your thoughts below on the importance of protecting and promoting the importance of play for all children or share your ideas on how play can be incorporated into education. You can also share this blog post with your social networks to further the conversation.

At Stratford Landing Elementary School in Fairfax, Va., a nearly new playground sits wrapped in caution tape. It represents a struggle between a PTA, which raised $35,000 from silent auctions and bake sales to purchase and install the playground equipment, and school officials, who have deemed the play equipment too dangerous and are ordering its removal.

‘Too dangerous’ means that the equipment doesn’t meet the school district’s established safety standards. Though parents may be tempted to vilify the Fairfax County Public School administrators—who are offering the school $135,000 to replace the equipment—the administrators are hardly to blame for following their own protocol. Instead of pointing fingers, let’s shift the conversation. Instead of advocating for exceptions to the rule, let’s reexamine the rules.

The reams of caution tape at Stratford Landing serve as a potent symbol of a generation of kids who are missing out on vital opportunities to push and challenge themselves. Says eight-year-old Kes Shallbetter of the play equipment she barely got to play on: “I was upset because it was fun… It was exciting to have a new piece at the playground because the old pieces I got so bored at.”

It’s a shame that $35,000 of hard-earned PTA money may go to waste, but the much larger shame is that even with a $135,000 investment from the county, Kes may once again find herself bored during recess. And she isn’t the only one. Our playgrounds are failing to engage our country’s eight-, nine-, and ten-year-olds, pushing them to the sidelines at a time in their lives when they should be pushing themselves to climb higher.

A playground that challenges children not only keeps them active for longer, but it also motivates them to think creatively when they encounter obstacles and experiment with potential solutions. In other words, it prepares them to be healthy, innovative, successful adults who can navigate an increasingly complex and connected world.

The real question here is not: How can we save the equipment at Stratford Landing? The real question is: How can we save our children’s childhoods and futures—in Fairfax and beyond?

UPDATE: Though we must continue to ask ourselves how we can ensure that children across the country have access to challenging play equipment, we are happy to report that according to The Washington Post, "A dispute over a Fairfax County elementary school playground structure has been resolved after a school district official announced Wednesday that the equipment would no longer be off-limits to students."

Children flocked to the new playground equipment before it was slated for removal and wrapped in caution tape. Photos courtesy of the Stratford Landing PTA, via The Patch.

As elementary school students in Chicago head back to school, they will have to adjust to a school day that is one hour and 15 minutes longer than it was last year. With a potential strike on the horizon, it's clear that many teachers aren't happy about the change, but will it benefit the students?

Here's our gut reaction: More school?! No way! Kids these days already spend far too much time in scheduled activities, and the last thing they need is another hour and 15 minutes of sitting.

But on closer examination, a longer school day just might be a good thing. According to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a shorter school day creates "false choices," forcing "teachers and principals and parents and students... to pick between social studies versus science; math versus music; reading versus recess."

And of course, when such choices have to be made, outdoor play falls by the wayside. But with a longer school day, some Chicago public schools are now offering recess for the first time in 30 years.

Alondra Nino, a student at Caesar Chavez Elementary School, told WBEZ radio: “For me, it’s always been a problem concentrating on work. And if it’s all work, work, work, it’s even harder. And now having an extra break, it’s actually going to be easier for me.”

In a perfect world, play would be an integral part of all curricula, no matter how short (or long) the school day. And in a perfect world, all kids would get to play outdoors after school. But in the imperfect world we live in -- which prizes the 3 R's above all else, and which offers children fewer and fewer opportunities to play in their free time -- we fully support a longer school day, as long as it means more (or any!) outdoor play.

What do you think? Would you support a longer school day if it meant more recess for your children?

Kids don't have to think very hard about why they need to play. They just need the time and space to do it.

Even so, kids seem to intuitively understand that while play is first and foremost about having fun, it's also about challenging oneself and learning from failure. As we continue to be baffled by school policy makers and administrators who are slashing recess and other play opportunities, fourth graders like Diego remind us of the important life lessons that our playgrounds have to offer.

Here is his eloquent ode to monkey bars:

Monkey Bars

You’ve taught me a lot of good lessons

You’ve taught me to be braver than I am

To swing out as far as I can

To keep pushing forward

To move one step at a time

To fall into a heap in the dirt

And then get up and try again

Monkey Bars, you’ve shown me the stars

- By Diego, 4th grade

Diego is a student in the Writers in the Schools (WITS) program, where this poem was originally featured.

Photo by Andy Schultz (cc).

We are staunch advocates of recess, but how many adults truly remember what recess is all about? It isn't just 20 minutes of mindless running and screaming. It's a time to create imaginary worlds, take on new personas, make friendships, break friendships, learn new skills, scrape a knee, engage in mischief, and much more.

"Recess Stories," a web series that bases its episodes on true stories, captures the delightful complexity of life on the playground. Take a look:

Please, remind us: Why are we taking this away from our kids?

See more episodes at

Did you have a best friend growing up? These days, you just might be breaking the rules. That's right -- according to our friend Tim Gill at Rethinking Childhood, at least one UK school has enacted a "best friend ban."

Educational psychologist Gaynor Sbuttoni told The Sun, "They are doing it because they want to save the child the pain of splitting up from their best friend. But it is natural for some children to want a best friend. If they break up, they have to feel the pain because they're learning to deal with it."

Let's face it: Pain is part of growing up. Skinned knees teach children valuable lessons about their physical limits, just as a waning friendship helps to emotionally prepare them for future losses. Trying to protect them from either is not only fruitless, but can actually do more harm than good.

And while it's clearly beneficial for children to learn how to play in groups, no one should have to sacrifice a close friendship to do so. Rather than criminalizing a normal, and often healthy, element of growing up, why not gently encourage more group play by teaching collaborative recess games? (Our good friends at Playworks are experts in this realm.)

What would you tell your school if they implemented a best friend ban?

Photo by cobalt123 (cc).

This 5th-grader from Cache la Poudre Elementary School in La Porte, Colo. thinks that his recess teachers need to "loosen up." Why? According to him, their safety concerns are not only making it hard to stay active, but also to have any fun. 

In his words:

Exercise is really important and that is why I think the recess teachers should loosen up. We kids are just trying to have fun. Every day, it is a struggle to find what to do at recess, and then the next day, the fun is taken away.

For example, recently I was playing with a jump rope. I come out to school recess the next day and they are already gone. I want to complain to the recess teachers, but that will just get them mad at us all. I know they are just trying to keep us safe, but sometimes I think it is going over the line. Normally, teachers say school shouldn't be boring and it should be for learning and part of learning is being active. But these teachers are making it extra hard to do this.

See Wynter Brown's full letter here.

If you received this letter from Wynter, how would you respond?

In November KaBOOM! launched its first guest blogging contest, asking parents to muse about their experiences with play. We received lots of entries, and while it was tough, managed to narrow it down. Over the next ten weeks we will be publishing the top ten, and we hope you enjoy reading them as much as we did! Congratulations to all of our winners. In 2nd place is Fezeka Saige from Roswell, Georgia…

I recently went back to South Africa with my six-year-old triplets. I was looking forward to spending time with my family and the relief of not being scheduled. The rural setting that I had cursed whenever my parents took me for Christmas break is littered with mud huts set on green rolling hills but without modern amenities. While the break from technology was appealing to me as an adult, I agonized and worried over how my American children would fare. How would they adjust without TV, computers and electricity?

Turns out I had nothing to worry about.

My kids played in the dirt with a tennis ball fashioned out of old newspapers and plastic bags. They used their creativity to turn sticks, stones and anything that they found into bats, balls, sling shots and any game they could think of. I watched as the group of friends that my shy kids amassed grew and grew until there were enough kids to play a heated game of soccer. I only saw the kids when they were hungry or when it was time for bed. As we boarded the plane and headed home for the beginning of the school year, I wondered how much play they would have in their school day.

While they are at school, recess is the only time for unstructured play. Since recess is now only 15 minutes a day, I thought surely it is a must. We wouldn’t intentionally ignore the well-documented benefits to learning, social development and health, that even a 15 minute recess can provide. Realizing the significance of play, I started making it a habit to ask everyday if my children had recess.

I was shocked at the answers.

It turns out that sometimes the class takes too long with a lesson or other activity so recess gets cut. Or it rained three days ago and the equipment might still be wet, so recess is eliminated. Or some kids were talking at lunch so as punishment the whole class stays indoors. Added to that, my six-year-old daughter was coming home with enough homework to last an hour. How could I expect a 6-year old who had not played outside all day to sit for an hour at home doing homework?

The decline in play is staggering. According to the National Center for Education kids have lost about 12 hours per week in free time since 1970 and there has been a 50% decline in unstructured outdoor play. But I didn’t need to see the statistics to know that my kids were not getting what they needed.

To make what I considered an essential difference, I decided to place myself in settings where I could let kids play. I coach two soccer teams, I co-lead a girl scout troop and teach Sunday school. In all these environments I see children unable to sit still and pay attention. My reaction: let’s get up and move around! Why is it abnormal for 6-year olds to want to be active? Why is the kid who needs to stand up every ten minutes seen as odd? The biggest compliment I have yet received was when a parent who was volunteering at our girls scout meeting said, “You really just let the kids be kids.” Who would want it any other way?

How to get bad students to behave? Threaten to deny something they like. Kids like recess. Therefore, the "bad kids" will learn their lesson if they are forced to stay indoors, while the "good kids" get to venture outside and play.

At first glance, the logic seems sound. But while taking recess away seems to be an increasingly popular disciplinary measure in the classroom, is it really effective? Research shows that kids who get a chance to run around and let off some steam during the day actually behave better in the classroom. Not only are they more focused, but their brains are more receptive to learning.

In fact, it’s all too likely that the rise in ADHD and other attention disorders is related to the decline in outdoor play opportunities for children—in schools, neighborhoods, and homes.

This is not to say that bad classroom behavior should go unaddressed, but denying kids recess is unlikely to have the desired effect. In fact, it’s those rowdy, uncontrollable kids who need recess the most.

Have your kids been denied recess because they misbehaved in the classroom? Do you think taking away recess is an effective disciplinary technique?

When kids must teach adults the difference between a rational and irrational decision, you have to stop and wonder what’s going on.

In St. Catharines, Canada, 10-year-old Mathew Taylor (pictured left) stepped up to reverse his school’s decision to ban all balls—basketballs excluded—on the schoolyard during recess. The ban was imposed after one child got hit in the head by a soccer ball, even though according to Mathew, “she was back in class shortly after the incident.”

After “some boring recesses,” Mathew decided to take action. He collected 95 signatures for a petition, researched childhood obesity data online, and met with the school principal. His impressive and persuasive efforts led her to reverse course and once again allow soccer balls, footballs, and tennis balls on the school field.

It’s heartwarming to see Play Heroes like Mathew stepping in to save play. He instinctively understood that the decision to implement the ban was driven by paranoia and did not serve the best interests of his schoolmates.

But the fact that 10-year-olds are teaching school administrators about common sense is worrisome—to say the least. Would we rather see kids running around during recess, refining their gross motor skills, learning about teamwork,  and incrementally challenging themselves? Or would we rather see them sitting around?

Knee-jerk reactions to relatively minor injuries on the schoolyard may or may not stave off lawsuits, but at what cost?

Photo by Bob Tymczyszyn, St. Catharines Standard. Learn more about this story here.