Time to Recess Takes Forever!

5 Pieces of the Recess Puzzle

Time never moves more slowly than when you are waiting for the recess bell to ring!  I remember sitting in my hard plastic chair working at my desk and glancing up at the clock, over and over.   Only two minutes have passed and yet it feels like 15!  10:00 is never going to arrive!  Finally . . .the bell rings!  The textbook is closed with a sharp snap, I jump out of my seat pushing through the bottleneck of classmates at the door.   At last . . . I feel free as my feet hit the Recess Playground!

  1. Recess then and now

Recess back in the 1970s

Recess during the 1970s was probably one of the last experiences of what I will call ‘Pure Recess’.  Games like 4 square, hopscotch, skipping, skip-it and sevensies littered the playground.  My school didn’t have a play structure, but we were allowed equipment and we were allowed to touch and play with the snow in the winter.  The sloped playground made for an awesome natural slide that ended in an ice pond at the bottom.  (In some circles, this would now be considered Risky Play.  A topic for another blog.)

Boys at recess circa 1970

Was there bullying?  Of course, there was! The ‘mean girl’ gossiping and exclusion ran rampant and could last for days! At least back then we did not have to contend with our ridicule and shame being plastered on social media as well as the playground.  The boys argued, fisticuffs ensued, then it was all forgotten.  By the next recess, play resumed as if nothing had happened.  I’ve always been fascinated by how males and females handle the playground scuffles differently.  (again, a topic for another blog!)

Time marches on . . .

If I were to compare recess today to mine 40 plus years ago (yikes!), you may be surprised at how different they are.  I mean, play is play, right?!  Regrettably, many factors affect play.  Parents with children in elementary school may be aware that societal influences and a school’s fear of litigation infiltrate the playground. 

Social media’s shaming and blaming gives parents cause to think before they let their 10-year-old walk to the park or play in the back yard alone.  This was never a barrier for me.  The rule in our house was you go out to play or do chores.  The answer was obvious!  But by stifling a child’s independence, it squashes creativity, the confidence to try something new and their communication skills.  Why would you want to articulate and share ideas knowing they may be shot down?!

Releasing that 10-year-old who is only familiar with adult-led play (during PE class or an afterschool activity) onto the recess playground is the equivalent to asking a mechanic apprentice to drop an engine into a brand new car.   Time, practice and the support of a respected teacher are how we learn and achieve a satisfying solution. 

Fear of litigation due to sprains, breaks and concussions has prompted several schools in Canada and the US to eliminate balls, skipping ropes and even cartwheels from the playground.   Increased opportunities for practicing a variety of physical activities and social skills instead of elimination could be the answer.  This simplistic approach is anything but simple as it takes time, patience and training to create culture change on the recess playground

Should we bring back yesterday’s recess?   No!  Using what we have learned from our past is beneficial but addressing the social/emotional needs that many children face today is the key to achieving a better recess.  Looking at recess with fresh ideas and discovering how to expand the social and physical confines are ways to bring about growth.


2. Wishes and dreams won’t cut it


How is recess defined?

Very simply, recess consists of two concepts:

(1) a break from work, and
(2) a child’s choice of play. 

Seriously!  How can we mess up two very simple ideas?   

Wishes & Dreams won't cut it for recess

If wishes and dreams devise a quality recess, then recess would be a happy time for all students and staff.  We know that this is not the case at many schools. Planning recess with intention and purpose will ensure a recess that is successful and sustainable. 

A planned recess is not meant to be confused with confining structure and too many regulations.   Creating a blueprint that includes goals and realistic priorities are objectives for your recess team.  A school’s recess team should include voices from all sectors: administration, all staff, students and parents. This is critical to laying a solid foundation. 

A school’s blueprint would include alternatives to withholding recess and how you can provide different play options or play patterns during recess throughout the whole playground.


3.  Giving brains time to sort and separate

 Stand up if you are guilty of sitting in front of your computer for hours on end? Research and personal experience recommend that this is not only unhealthy but also unproductive. 

When we have a break away from work, aka recess, we regenerate our motivation, our concentration and prevent decision fatigue.  Dr. Olga Jarrett, a long-time recess researcher, recaps the benefits of recess:

“For people of all ages and in all fields, breaks are considered essential for satisfaction and alertness” (Jarrett, 2003).

“…found that fourth-graders were more on-task and less fidgety in the classroom on days when they had had recess, with hyperactive children among those who benefited the most” (Jarrett, 2003).

Don't overflow the ketchup bottle

Recess gives brains the time to sort and compartmentalize lessons.  If a break is denied, optimal learning cannot continue.  To bring a visual to this image you are trying to refill a bottle with ketchup (don’t ask why - this is an analogy).  Using a funnel, you pour a lot of ketchup into the funnel and instead of giving it time to filter down, you just keep pouring more ketchup in.  Eventually, it will overflow, and the extra ketchup will be a messy puddle on the counter.  Instead, pouring in smaller amounts and giving it time, the ketchup will get where it is supposed to be without the mess.  Providing recess is a way for children’s brains to let the information flow to the correct area, eliminating the messy puddle of wasted information pooling on their chairs and floors!


4. Choice is power!

The second part of recess’s definition is a child’s choice of play.  When given the chance to make our own choices, we feel in control of our universe.  Offering choice to a child will:

  • Build confidence when making wise choices.
  • Cultivate a sense of value and respect.
  • Teach acceptance of the consequences.
  • Foster creativity because ‘authority’ is not directing.
  • Develop problem-solving skills as they make organic changes to their original idea.

By offering different patterns of play during recess, schools provide freedom.  I am not suggesting that it is a carte blanche of activities during recess, instead, there could be 2-3 choices on certain days. 

A choice of play does not always have to include active play.  When new choices are offered new interests could be discovered.  We’ll talk about the 7 Patterns of Play in an upcoming blog.


5. Learning beyond the confines of the classroom walls

Real World learning opportunities are part of quality education.  The 3 R’s– reading, writing, and 'rithmetic – will only take us so far in life.  A sense of belonging, sportsmanship, empathy, sharing, taking turns and creativity are part of a global set of skills we pack in our invisible tool belt when we play.

Denying such skills, in my opinion, is a crime and why the United Nations created the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

A Canadian government website defines the CRC as “Children were long treated as an object of law – as being without capacity and in need of protection – and were given no rights. Today, the child is recognized as a full person, whose capacity is developing and the child is recognized as having rights of his or her own. Children are now true subjects of law, but deserve special protection because of their particular vulnerability. This is the modern concept of the child on which the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is based.”

For many children, recess is one of the rare times they will experience unstructured play during the day.  If this is the case, why are not more caring adults creating that quality experience for them?

 What I wish I learned at school

 Michael Hyne’s post on LinkedIn

Canadians are more fortunate than our American play friends because recess is part of the school day in all of our provinces and territories. This is not the case in the US as not every state offers children recess during the school day. 

The next step now is to ensure that the recess being offered is of the highest quality.  Playocracy is developing The Recess Architect, a program that works with your school to design, build and deliver a quality recess experience tailored to your school’s needs.  Connect with us to find out more.