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Is Recess Necessary?

Ohanian Comment: This
is a stunning disregard of the needs of
children--coupled with a hard-sell promotion of
KIPP. Of course, I wrote my own book, What
Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children
Struggling in Kindergarten?

I would add that none of my personal,
hands-on experience with children and recess
comes from suburbia. Jay seems to feel that
those urban kids just don't know how to behave
during recess and those urban kids should be
spending all their time doing skill drill,

Jay posits recess breaks as time away from
skill drill for standardized tests, insisting
that "those" kids can't afford the recess time
off task. Well, I've devoted a career to
arguing that "time on task" is a myth, but
that's another story.

Even people who run prisons recognize the
importance of the inmates having a time to
exercise, wander around, shoot the breeze.
Don't third graders deserve at least as much?
Sure, there is danger in this. The only
absolutely secure place is the grave.

One of my favorite quotes ever is from a
principal in Essex Junction, Vermont, "We
never cancel recess."
When it is absolutely
too stormy, too cold, to go outside (about 15
days a year), the school holds indoor recess.

And I would put Jay in touch with the New Jersey moms who are
working hard to get recess legislated as a
necessity there.

By Jay Mathews

I often spout opinions on matters about which I
know nothing, so I understand when my favorite
peer group -- the American people -- does the
same. The latest example is a survey of 1,000
U.S. adults by the Robert Wood Johnson
Foundation, which specializes in public health
projects, and Sports4Kids, a national nonprofit
organization that supports safe and healthy
playtime in low-income elementary schools.

According to the survey's press release, "seven
out of 10 Americans disagree with schools'
policies of eliminating or reducing recess time
for budgetary, safety or academic reasons." I
realize most people don't know how poisonous
recess can be for urban schools with severe
academic needs, but I was surprised to see the
news release fail to acknowledge this. It even
suggests, without qualification, that "in low-
income communities" recess time "offers one of
our best chances to help children develop into
healthy, active adults who know how to work
together and resolve conflicts."

Few Americans have an opportunity to experience
what teaching in urban schools is like. The
people I know who have done so have developed a
well-reasoned antipathy for the typical half-
hour, go-out-and-play-but-don't-kill-anybody
recess. In my forthcoming book, "Work Hard. Be
Nice," about the Knowledge Is Power Program, I
describe the classroom and playground chaos
KIPP co-founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin
encountered before starting their first KIPP
fifth grade in a Houston public elementary
school, the beginning of their successful

"If they let any misbehavior go unnoticed, that
would increase the likelihood of further bad
behavior, distract from the lesson, and slow
down the class. If they let some students tease
others, resentments would fester, an even more
corrosive undermining of a learning

"For those reasons, both Feinberg and Levin
disliked the standard school recess. It was a
prime distraction. It interrupted the flow of
their teaching. They had to line everyone up to
go outside and then line them up again to
return to class. Recess inspired fights that
affected the classroom for the rest of the day.
Levin and Feinberg refused to take their class
out for recess in the morning, when the energy
and concentration of their students were at a
high point. [Their principal] did not like such
departures from the schedule. But fewer
students at recess meant less disruption, so
she let it go."

The notion that recess might be a detriment to
learning is lost on many of the people surveyed
by Robert Wood Johnson and Sports4Kids, as well
as the people who wrote the survey news
release. It says: "The new findings come at a
time when many schools and school districts are
making the difficult choice of cutting back on
recess to make more time for standardized test
preparation, as outlined on a report this fall
by the Center for Public Education. Cutbacks to
recess tend to be concentrated in schools
serving the highest number of minority students
or students in poverty, making underserved
children the least likely to get this valuable

See that little dig about standardized tests? A
less-biased writer would have acknowledged that
conscientious educators like Levin and Feinberg
might have good reason to cut back recess in
order to give their students more time to
learn. The Center for Public Education report,
by the way, does not say recess is being cut to
make more time for standardized test prep. It
also says that contrary to rumor, recess is not
disappearing. Nine of every 10 elementary
schools have recess, averaging about 30 minutes
a day. Those schools cutting recess shave off
just a few minutes.

Some schools are eliminating it, however, for
what seem like good reasons to me. Brian Betts,
principal of Shaw Middle School at Garnet-
Patterson in the District, explained the end of
recess this year to his students, who are
mostly from low-income families: "I have you
for only 6 1/2 hours." Educators such as Betts
do not, however, reject the need for more play
and exercise. They prefer to provide it through
physical education and after-school sports,
where there is room for teaching. Some schools,
such as KIPP, have longer school days in part
so they can ensure that children get daily PE,
something that public schools have been cutting
back for several decades.

As I wrote about the first KIPP class in
Houston: "As a substitute for recess, Feinberg
and Levin had a 45-minute dodge ball game just
for their students every afternoon. About 3:30
p.m., after the regular Garcia [Elementary
School] students had gone home, the KIPP class
would take a snack break and then head for the
gym. They used the basketball court. The class
divided itself into two large teams, one on
each side of the midline. Teachers and students
tried some new rules. If you sank the ball in
the basketball hoop from the other side of the
line, everyone on your team could come back
into the game. Some players were ghosts and
could not be killed by being hit with a ball
because they were invisible. It was a good
assignment for players who were small or weak
or very new to the game."

Betts, at Shaw Middle, does the same thing.
Everyone has PE every day, something they did
not have at their schools the year before.
There are also after-school sports. Shaw
Middle's football team finished the season 5-1.

The best argument for recess, it turns out,
comes from the founder and president of
Sports4Kids, Jill Vialet. She doesn't try to
defend her news release, and instead points to
the 2007 report her organization and Robert
Wood Johnson published, "Recess Rules." It goes
right to the center of the debate, with quotes
from principals about recess: "Recess is when
all the trouble starts: the teasing, the
fights, the bullying, the injuries, the
referrals," or "I know it's lunch recess when
the office is full and the nurse is cringing,"
or the most frequent response, "Recess is

Yet Vialet thinks recess can add to learning if
knowledgeable organizations like her nonprofit
train the adult supervisors. The Robert Wood
Johnson Foundation has committed $18.7 million
to expand Sports4Kids the next five years.

To her, recess is a perfect opportunity to
teach children how to cooperate and settle
disputes. The notion that they will have the
time and guidance for carefree exercise and
other recess benefits back home after school,
she says, is just another middle-class myth,
like the view that the standard recess is good
for everybody.

Vialet knows the KIPP people. Sports4Kids has
worked with their schools in Baltimore. She
does not deny Feinberg's argument that recess
can deteriorate to "opening up the door and
letting the kids run into the school yard while
the teachers gather in the shade and talk about
how much they hate the principal." If recess is
going to work, Vialet and Feinberg say, there
have to be good teachers in the middle of it,
interacting with kids in a thought-out way.

Feinberg says, "Whether the goal is children
playing a team sport to learn teamwork or
knocking 20 seconds off their average time in
running the mile, or learning social problem-
solving through interactions while playing
informally, all of those situations need a
teacher to set up the activities and/or
facilitate the activities -- and debrief to
help the children process what they have
learned when teachable moments on the
schoolyard arise."

Many of us, including some of the respondents
to the recess survey, likely attended suburban
elementary and middle schools where recess was
kicking a ball around, or a couple of games of
foursquare. Those 30-minute breaks from teacher
supervision are sweet memories, but we have
forgotten the less charming aspects of
playground life. If students are one or two
years below grade level, time is precious.
Vialet and Feinberg are right to want more
teaching, not less, even when students are not
in class.

— Jay Mathews
Washington Post




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