Posts Tagged right to recess

Rhode Island’s New Law Mandates Recess for Kids

Published by — Apparently we need the states to step in to prevent the disappearance of playtime in school.

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Ask adults what their favorite subject in grade school was and often you’ll get “recess.”  Yes of course, they also liked the science of erupting volcanoes, reading intriguing stories, and hopefully much more.  But young bodies needs to run, play, and shriek.  Many adults remember the palpable relief of being liberated from their desks.  I am one of them.

You might think that recess is a given for little kids even into middle school.  Actually, not so much.  Elementary schools always claim to give recess, but researchers found that on a randomly-selected school day, only 79% had recess.  Of those, 61% of African-American kids and 75% of other minority students had recess compared with 85% of white children. Merely 56% of kids in poverty were playing.  Even at school, kids in poverty can’t cut a break.

An overview of the states show that few require recess.  Individual districts can set their own policies.  But the internet has pages and pages of complaints about not giving kids some time to themselves.  We’re often compared with other countries who give their kids plenty of time off (and have longer, less pressured school days).

So it was with mild fanfare that Rhode Island’s Legislature managed to pass a bill that requires elementary schools to give kids at least 20 minutes of daily recess.  Lest you think this new law would affect a mere handful of buildings, only 18% were already doing this, according to data collected by Recess for Rhode Island, an advocacy group.  The data also shows that school play spaces are often inadequate and lacking equipment.  Few schools have good indoor options.  Recess has indeed withered.

How on earth did kids lose their right to a break?

Usually the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), 2001, is blamed for the incredible shrinking recess.  Across the nation, school staff alleged that testing required endless test-prep that took time away from everything else.  NCLB demanded that all students be proficient in English and math as of 2014 — a stupid, impossible goal.

Still, threatened with sanctions, schools shaved time off wherever they could.  Any mom could have told you that tedious, mind-numbing test-prep wouldn’t produce sparkling results.  And it didn’t.  So maybe beleaguered schools were taking their frustration out on the kids.  Everyone was having less fun; cutting recess just made it official.

But another factor at work might have been to use NCLB as an opportunity to limit kids’ freedom to be naughty at school.  Many parents and teachers believe that free play leads directly to bullying, for example.  But the Alliance for Childhood, among many others, have evidence that free play is precisely where and when kids learn social skills, including the need to curb aggression.  If recess erupts with unwanted behavior, bad on the adults who aren’t monitoring the inevitable disputes that erupt among kids.  Socially-savvy adults on the playground can distinguish between kids’ natural process of learning to sort out their differences and aggression that needs adult intervention.  No one can learn how to handle their social world until they experience conflict and learn to respond to it both responsibly and effectively.

Punishing kids by benching them at recess is super controlling.

The original version of Rhode Island’s legislation, written by the recess advocates, prohibited withholding recess as punishment.  Sadly, punishment is still the go-to technique for curbing misbehavior, even though a preponderance of evidence argues that punishment doesn’t work.  Bad kids just get badder.  But the original mandate was rendered toothless to accommodate those who complained that withholding recess was a valuable tool for managing behavior.

The bill now asks school staff to try other options first.  Recess for RI’s data showed that fully 70% of the schools say they withhold recess for disciplinary reasons.  So, specifically those kids who most need to run and shriek are parked along some fence, usually for all to see, as if that would motivate anyone to behave in the classroom.

C’mon, who doesn’t need a break in their day?  Walking down the hall and having a chat with a co-worker is good for your mental health.  Everyone needs a mental pause to perform at their best.  Everyone needs to interact with others socially.  Everyone needs some physical activity if only stretching.  And children’s bodies especially are little dynamos.

Who have we become as a culture that the kids need the full force of state law to get 20 minutes off?  Still, some recess-deprived kids will finally get a break.  Thank God.

 (Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUBFor more, see or contact her at The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.


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Time, the Most Valuable Currency in the School Day

Published by — Setting aside downtime helps nurture the skills that let kids be successful.


Last week we marveled over what the International Charter School (ICS) in Pawtucket, RI could do by investing one minute of class time here and there with “energizers.”  But while a one-minute pick-me-up freshens kids’ ability to learn, what on earth would a whole hour of downtime yield?

Unlike most schools, ICS students take a giant break from academics in the middle of their day.  Though it’s a charter school, ICS has the same relatively short day as local district schools, 6.5 hours.  Carved from that limited time are 20 minutes for recess followed by a full 30 minutes for lunch, then a 10-minute quiet time — one hour.

Yes, ICS is a dual language school.  They switch languages mid-day, from Spanish or Portuguese in the morning, say, to English in the afternoon.  While the mid-day break helps with making the language switch, that’s not why they do it.  Instead, the seeming downtime is set aside to nurture skills that help kids be successful as people.

Time is finite, whether it’s a class period, a school day or a lifetime.  What teachers say they have enough time in the day to accomplish all they are expected to do?  Over the summer, administrators work for days on schedules as complex and convoluted as M.C. Escher drawings, shaving minutes off here to make room for new requirements there.  Time is the coin of a school’s realm.  How schools spend it reveals their values and priorities.

Charter schools generally have longer days than district schools.  The so-called “no excuses” schools — Achievement First here, and more famously Success Academies and KIPP elsewhere — have super long days, often 8:00 to 4:00 or more.  And so-called “progressive” charters use longer day to relax the schedule so both students and teachers can breathe, plan, catch up, and do time-consuming projects.  ICS sticks with the relatively short day of local district schools.

No one teaches or learns well when emotions or behavior are out of control.  

Darlene Pugnali, Assistant Director, emphasizes that ICS sets a high value on social-and-emotional-learning (SEL).  An SEL team — social worker, occupational therapist and others — meet weekly to case-manage kids and to balance their academics with adjusting conditions to help them manage their own emotions and behavior.  Self-management is far more critical to success, in all aspects of life, than advanced academics.  ICS spends much of the first six weeks of every school year establishing all manner of expectations about students controlling their bodies, understanding personal space, understanding others, using words to express emotion.  “It’s in every little thing we do.”

Kids learn social skills during social time like recess.

Many schools have eliminated recess outright, especially in urban areas.  As one superintendent says in a white paper, “We are intent on improving academic performance. You don’t do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars.”  The gross misuse of testing results has perverted schools’ interest in what used to be called “the whole child.”  Social time is sacrificed for instructional time, even though no evidence shows test-prep increases test scores.

Furthermore, kids have become harder to handle.  Fewer families teach and practice traditional essentials like politeness, manners and courtesy.  Rude behavior has risen at every socio-economic level — just ask teachers.  Aggressive video games and Facebook don’t help.  Sadly, recess is vulnerable to bullying and anti-social behavior.

So ICS teachers mill around the play areas with the students supervising, but at a distance.  The kids are free to make friends, create their own games, get into scrapes with one another, and figure out how to resolve them themselves.

ICS never withholds recess as punishment.  Kids need a break.  Rule-breakers have to face consequences, but losing recess is not one of them.

Many other school lunchtimes are run like drive-by troughs.

Some schools’ cafeterias are so small that students are batch-processed in separate shifts in tiny allotments of time.  Move ‘em out, take a quick swipe at the place, and it’s onto the next group.  Sure, adults sometimes eat lunch at their desks, but even then they’re not speed-scarfing food so they can fill up before getting kicked out.

ICS students eat at a leisurely, social pace.  Having recess first, though — a research-backed practice — means they’re hungry and get down to business.  But they can linger and talk if they like.  Once done, they’re still on downtime and can read color, draw, and fool around.

The last 10 minutes are truly meditative.  

Quiet time helps them transition back to learning and to their second language.  Teachers play music or read aloud.  No talking.  Maybe heads down on desk.  Just stop, breathe, collect yourself.

Darlene Pugnali says, “The other day I was in Portuguese class and the teacher had the kids stretching while a calm, taped voice took the kids through guided imagery designed for relaxing.”  It’s like Star Wars’ C-3PO shutting himself down before going back into the fray.

Schools can’t presume that kids will come with social skills or good self-management.  But schools can provide the time and supervision that allow kids to learn these things themselves.  ICS’s results, enumerated in last week’s column, speak for themselves.  These people are scholars of the value of time.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Parents Must Fight for Kids’ Right To Recess

Published by — When one parent realized an all-day kindergarten meted out recess like a precious commodity, she took action — and realized she wasn’t alone.

A year ago summer, Megan Rosker was about to put the oldest of her three kids into kindergarten in a public school near Tampa, Florida.  Her family had moved there from New Mexico, where she’d taught kindergarten herself.  As a teacher, she was fine with sending her child off to school.But a friend who had older children already in the school pulled her aside.  Did Rosker know that this all-day kindergarten didn’t have recess?


Well, not exactly.  As a reward for being good all week, the kids can run around during the last half hour of the last day.

Fat lot of good that does for squirmy little energy dynamos.  Humans of any age are insufferable if they can’t get a break from work.  Might this clueless practice be contributing to Attention Deficit Disorder, now at epidemic proportions?

“Like many parents, I simply didn’t pay that much attention to what was going in schools until my kids got there. I never dreamed that schools had gotten this far off track.  When I was teaching, no one had ever suggested that we do away with recess.”  In New Mexico, her kindergartners got two recesses every day.

Plenty concerned, but confident that reasonable minds could agree, Rosker and her friend spoke to the school’s parent-advisory committee.  “They were nice, but not interested.”

So they poked around to see what the experts say.

In fact, substantial research argues that kids and adults both learn and work better when they get breaks.  Anthony Pellegrini and Catherine Bohn examined various data sources and determined, in “The Role of Recess in Children’s Cognitive Performance and School Adjustment, that “children were more attentive after than before recess.”

Asian schools, whose test scores Americans envy, give their younger kids a 10-minute break after every 40 minutes of instruction.  Older students have 50 minutes of instruction before a break.

Pellegrini and Bohn conclude, “Unstructured breaks from demanding cognitive tasks seem to facilitate school learning, as well as more general social competence and adjustment to school.”

American schools often point to their 25-minute mid-day break and call the latter part of it recess.  But jammed into it are lunch, bathroom, locker, and “transition,” or going to and fro.  Such recesses encourage kids to bolt lunch so they can get out and be on their own.

Rosker and her friend found schools across the nation steadily chipping away at using time for “non-instructional” purposes, eliminating art, music and other fooling around.

Poor kids.

So they went back to the parent-advisory committee, this time armed with “tons of research.”  Rosker says, “Suddenly there was extraordinary animosity.  The teachers felt that with all the testing, they didn’t have time.  The kids lose focus, and they have discipline problems, and they could get hurt.  Parents were scared out of their skin about testing, so they really didn’t want to rock the boat.  No one supported us.  ”

Rosker was incensed.  So she did what she’d never done before, nudge her media-expert husband to take on her issue.  He got their plight covered by papers in St. Petersburg, Orlando, Tampa.  And then wham, the New York Times picked it up.

Rosker had no idea what she’d wandered into.  “Oh, now I get it.  We’re not the only ones dealing with this.  Many parents and advocates feel that this is a very big deal.”

So many people are worried that a group called Peaceful Playgrounds has assembled materials for advocates to use in a movement they call The Right To Recess.

Mind you, the teachers’ issues must be addressed.  Schools’ fear of liability is real.  Americans sue like it was a career option.  Fine, create a liability waiver and let the crazy helicopter parents refuse to sign it.  Allow the other kids to take calculated risks, since that’s the only way to teach adolescents to weigh the consequences of their potentially-foolish actions and curb their own risky behavior.

And yes, left to their own devices, students get into fights with one another, or bully.  So make sure they have close adult guidance that can teach them social skills, including how to deal with social aggression, which is a reality of everyone’s life.

But most worrisome is the way testing and accountability have become a national insanity.  Testing is fine; I love data.  But education bureaucracies seem to have forgotten that those are humans on their assembly lines.  Both frightened teachers and kids are getting their creative life-blood squeezed out of them.

Rosker makes the excellent point that recess and unstructured play provide “a portal into innovation that our current system is not supporting.  Play is the first experience of authoring from my own imagination.  I made this game, story, picture.  We’re not going to create truly creative people who can drive us forward as a culture, you know, like Steve Jobs.  We have a unique culture of innovation.  We should be leading in education, doing a great job with our kids.”

Hear, hear.

Ultimately, the Florida school instituted “brain breaks,” as opposed to recess.  God forbid they appear to be shirking their duty to test prep.

Rosker has since moved to New York City, where she finds the schools to be more “progressive.”  Barring horrible weather, public-school kids go outside for a real recess daily.

Even so, rescuing play-deprived kids has become Rosker’s life mission.  Join her here.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and GoLocalWorcester. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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