20 Minutes of Recess Is Not Enough

Kids play on a seesaw at recess.
Image Source: Thinkstock

“I just don’t think it’s right for kids to be inside school for so long.”

That would be my 1st-grader talking, born with a knack for persuasive arguments — and this sounded like the start of a doozy. I settled in for a grand soliloquy on the fundamental respect school children deserve, or the importance of him staying home for the day. And yet, he pulled a different string: recess.

“Kids learn from all sorts of places, not just school,” he said, eyes wide, hand gestures flying. “We should be out in the world and home with our parents, not stuck behind walls, sitting in chairs, with frowns on our faces. It’s like we’re trapped. But when we’re outside playing and running around, we’re smiling! Can’t teachers see that? We’re just kids. And kids need to play.”

Okay … I thought, appreciating his articulation.

“Do you really think 20 minutes of recess is enough?” he said, wrapping up his little speech.

Aside from the overly dramatic “school-as-prison” analogy, I had to admit: I don’t think 20 minutes of recess is enough, and it’s been one of my big sticking points since he started public school in the first place.

For the three years prior to kindergarten, my son went to a private preschool where play — specifically, outdoor play — was the cornerstone of their education. Rain or shine (or snow), they were outside, exploring and playing. And then as soon as he started kindergarten, his outdoor play was limited to 20 minutes (on a good day). If it’s too cold, or too wet, or too windy, then indoor recess it is.

When you look around the country, 15 to 20 minutes seems to be a standard recess time for today’s kindergartener. And it’s not just the first graders of the world who think this is bogus. Study after study shows that today’s children simply aren’t given enough recess. Period. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics calls recess “a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development.”

This isn’t hokey theorizing; it’s hard science.

And it’s not just about getting kids active for their heart rates and waistlines. Unstructured play is critical to childhood development — establishing play narratives, navigating playground conflicts, and absorbing important social cues. As my 1st-grader said, kids learn from all sorts of places. Including — and especially — at recess.

So what can we do in this culture of standardized, grades-driven teaching? Are our hands tied to 20 measly minutes of recess a day?

Well, we could take a note from a group of public elementary schools in Texas that are trying the LiiNK program — an approach based on the (highly praised and highly effective) Finnish model of education, which calls for more recess time and less structured hours in the classroom.

Designed by Texas Christian University kinesiologist Debbie Rhea, LiiNK doesn’t just call for longer recess, but multiple recesses throughout the day. One Texas school in the program, Eagle Mountain Elementary, has spent the last five months trying out the new format. Rather than one 20-minute break, their kindergarteners and first graders now go outside for four 15-minute breaks throughout the day, rain or shine — serving as a sort of reboot to help kids learn more effectively in the classroom.

Teachers were nervous about the switch, assuming they’d have less time to teach, but the opposite was found. Kids are more attentive, with less discipline problems problems in the classroom. The principal of Eagle Mountain Elementary, Bryan McLain, told TODAY that the results have been “impressive,” while many teachers and parents would recommend the program to other schools.

LiiNK has four main objectives:

  1. Increase the amount of physical activity/recess in the schools.
  2. Add ethics/character development.
  3. Assess students differently. Less standardized testing.
  4. Restructure the school day, with less hours in the classroom and more time in play.

Rhea told NPR that her program is a shift away from solely focusing on academics. “[Kids] know how to play, they know how to structure their own play — they need that time to grow responsibly,” she shared.

My son would absolutely agree.

Until the culture shifts, until this mode of thinking becomes mainstream, all I can do is agree as well. Because he’s right; 20 minutes of recess simply isn’t enough. And we’re not the only ones who think so.

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