Dallas Public Schools: Making the Case for Recess

Any adult of a certain age (cough) can tell you about recess at school. I remember having three recesses – two quick 15 minute excursions outside in the morning and afternoon, and about 30 minutes or so at lunch.

Occasionally you’d get in trouble and have to sit on a square – but you were still outside. At the time, it seemed obvious that sending kids outside for breaks helped them learn. There was no science needed to discuss it – it was just universally accepted that recess was important.

But then, something happened. I’m not sure when (although some attribute it to increased high-stakes testing), but when I asked kids about recess recently, I got a lot of blank looks. When I first started asking about it, I thought maybe they used a different word now – after all, we don’t call pipe cleaners pipe cleaners anymore, and sitting Indian style has become “criss cross applesauce” or something. I’m elderly, so maybe there’s another name for recess, right? Maybe they call it “outdoor learning,” or “physical matriculation” or “a hard reset” or some other newfangled phrase that means “send the kids outside and let them have a learning break.”

But then earlier this month, Dallas ISD trustee Dan Micciche began a drumbeat – require recess in our schools. So no, I wasn’t using the wrong word. These kids just didn’t get recess.

Let me start with the not scientific reasons I agree with him. I have a kid who will be five in March. Now, while I’d rather be boiled in rancid french fry oil than homeschool (more power to people who do and you have my deep respect and admiration, but seriously, give me a bag of hammers to the face instead any day), we have done it for enrichment purposes in the summer. And I know for a fact – preschoolers can’t sit still for 8 hours straight. I’m not even sure they can sit still for 8 minutes straight. But if you take occasional breaks to do something physical, Tiny will come back and focus. So this I know.

But there is also an ever-increasing consensus that young minds need play. Play may look frivolous to people that are focused on test scores, but play is also where children test all sorts of things out – the playground is where the best trial-and-error, hypothesis and experiment, social and emotional intelligence happen.

Last year, a Gallup poll revealed that virtually every principal surveyed agreed that recess makes a positive impact on achievement – 8 in 10, to be exact. Yet, in the same survey, 77 percent of principals said they withheld recess as a punishment. The fact that so many across the nation (not just DISD students) end up not having recess at all because of punishment or because the rigors and pressures associated with bringing a struggling school up to snuff has actually caused the American Academy of Pediatrics to weigh in, too, saying that, “recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it.”

A Stanford University study published last year revealed that it’s not just the duration of recess, but also the quality. In the 2009-2010 school year, researchers examined six low-income elementary schools, introducing adult “coaches” who then collaborated with the students to come up with games with common sets of rules that everyone agreed to. The coaches also introduced conflict resolution tools and encouraged positive encouragement and inclusive behavior. They had two recess periods per day.

What they found is that adults are important to the recess experience as well. Achievement is based on several factors, after all, including the feeling of safety both physically and emotionally. When an adult was involved in the play, students’ overall feeling of well-being and enjoyment also increased because they felt safe. Teachers surveyed post-experiment said previously recess could be fraught with conflict. But 89 percent said that with the organized recess ( which is not the same as PE, which involves more established physical goals), the conflict largely disappeared. Kids began using positive language, and there was less bullying.

“Students more often initiated games in the pro-recess environments (83 percent of the students initiating games, compared to 33 percent in the lesser environment), and female students felt more engaged overall (85 percent to 55 percent). Finally, an overall improvement in how students felt was recorded (91 percent to 59 percent),” the study reported.

Which brings me back to last week’s school board briefing where recess was brought up. Micciche explained much of what I just said, and other parents weighed in, pointing out that childhood obesity rates have also climbed. Of the six trustees at the meeting, none shot the idea down, but some did want to see a more fleshed-out plan that would still let principals and administration feel confident that there would be adequate time for instructional needs as well.

If DISD administration can come back in January with a plan, the proposal will likely be up for discussion before the board that month. A vote could also happen soon after.

So what about you? What were your fondest memories of recess? Do you feel kids need it? What would your dream recess policy look like? Sound off!

2 Comment

  • mm

    Whoa, wait just a minute: we don’t sit Indian style any more? Please do not tell me that is because using the word “Indian” is offensive to Indians? This is when I want to scream.

    And I had no idea we had no recess in Dallas public schools! Thank you, Bethany, for bringing this up. This is a no-brainer! Why do we even waste meeting time on this… OF COURSE KIDS NEED RECESS! Any mother or father who has raised children know that attention span is limited with young children. Hell, it’s even limited with me. A few 15 minute breaks will get the blood flowing, perk their little brain cells, and actually improve learning. That studies were done to back this very common sense basic also kind of makes me want to scream. How much learning can you do in 15 minutes anyhow? Recess is very much needed. Amazing to learn that Dallas public schools don’t have recess!