Whatever Happened to Recess in U.S. Elementary Schools?

Nothing much has happened to recess in most U.S. elementary schools.

Recess began in 19th century one-room schoolhouses and continues into the third decade of the 21st century. As in most European and Asian schools, recess breaks have become traditional in the elementary school’s daily schedule when children to socialize, choose sides for games, climb jungle gyms, and simply talk with friends.

Yet the tradition of recess has become controversial in recent decades as pressure to raise U.S. students’ performance re-opened older debates over the academic worth of giving students a break from classroom work.

In 2016, for example, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed legislation that would have guaranteed daily recess to the state’s elementary school children “because part of my job as governor is to veto the stupid bills. That was a stupid bill and I vetoed it.” The bill Christie vetoed required a 20-minute daily recess period for grades K-5. Governor Phil Murphy who followed Christie signed into law mandatory recess of at least 20 minutes in all New Jersey elementary schools.

In 2017, the Florida state legislature revoked an earlier law that abolished recess in elementary schools. The Florida lawmakers required all elementary school students to have 20 minutes daily of uninterrupted recess.

Since the passage of No Child Left Behind (2001) and the national love affair with standardized testing, squeezing in more academics during the school day has seen many districts reduce break time elementary school children have had. In 2007, for example,

[T]he Center on Education Policy at George Washington University found that 62% of school districts had increased the amount of time spent on English language arts or math in elementary schools since 2001, while 44% of school districts had cut down on time spent on other subjects. The survey showed that 20% of school districts had reduced recess time.”

The core issue, of course, is the limited school time available for classroom teachers to cover the district curriculum while managing 25-30 students as they complete academic work, follow school rules, have lunch, traverse school hallways, and, yes, engage in recess. But there are other, more hidden reasons, for building breaks into the school day.

Recess prepares students for the workplace. One of the over-riding aims of tax-supported public schools is to familiarize children with the world of work. Because office, factory, and professional employees get coffee breaks during their workday, recess in elementary school students’ work day mirrors the adult world they will enter in later years.

Leaning upon the all-purpose reason used to justify policies since the report (1983) A Nation at Risk appeared, some researchers have justified recess by showing linkages between children taking breaks during the school day and increases in reading and math standardized test scores (see here and here). Yet such justifications are hardly persuasive–recall New Jersey Governor Chris Christie above comment–since purported academic gains are marginal, at best.

The point is that the rationale for elementary school children to have a period of time away from sitting at desks, following teacher directions, working in large and small groups on academic tasks is not whether it would improve district standardized test scores or raise letter grades students receive. Or even help children able to socialize with peers. Recess simply gives children relief from the work of schooling preparing them for what adults experience in their blue, white, or pink-collar jobs.

Yes, here again is evidence of one of the key purposes of tax-supported public schools. Children spending six hours a day in classrooms interrupted by a 20-30 minute break mirrors the adult workplace that they will enter after completing secondary school and college. No need to justify recess beyond that.

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