As a new school year begins in Kansas, health and physical education advocates are urging schools to respect recess.
“Kids need to move. They need to decompress and to socialize. The whole day is structured for them – minute by minute by minute,” said Rick Pappas, a former physical education teacher who now instructs prospective PE teachers at Wichita State University.
“They need down time, just like adults.”
A recent study of recess policies and practices in Kansas revealed that most elementary and middle schools don’t offer 20-minute recess, which has been shown to improve children’s behavior, academic performance, health and well-being.
The study, funded by the Kansas Health Foundation and conducted by the Kansas Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, showed that most schools are opting for shorter breaks for students.
In addition, nearly 60 percent of Kansas teachers who responded to the survey said their schools do not have policies prohibiting the withholding of recess as punishment – a discipline strategy most experts oppose.
Pappas, who helped author the report, said the findings are troubling but not surprising.
“We’ve seen a decrease in recess ever since No Child Left Behind,” he said.
“There’s so much pressure on teachers and schools to improve test scores, and there’s this general fear with administrators and classroom teachers that if they allow any recess besides lunchtime, that’s going to have a negative effect.”
Wichita, the state’s largest school district, doesn’t have any specific policies or guidelines regarding recess, said Alicia Thompson, assistant superintendent for elementary schools.
Twenty minutes of recess – typically before or after lunch – is built into the daily schedule for all elementary schools, Thompson said.
“Anything above and beyond (lunch recess), schools have the ultimate decision on how and when those (breaks) would occur,” she said.
Also, the district “would not recommend that recess is taken away for disciplinary reasons or punitive measures,” Thompson said.
“If that happens and it’s brought to our attention, we would definitely deal with that with the building principal and come up with other alternatives.”
Pappas said one 20-minute lunchtime recess is the minimum recommendation for elementary students. He and many other health advocates think schools should aim for an extra recess of at least 15 minutes, preferably outdoors, at least on days that students don’t have physical education class.
“The main reason we pursued this grant was we were concerned that elementary children weren’t getting enough recess,” Pappas said. “In my opinion, the survey results confirm that.”
Nearly a decade ago, Wichita schools implemented a standard schedule that gave more instruction time to reading and math. As part of that change, then-superintendent Winston Brooks sent a directive to elementary schools telling them to no longer schedule regular morning or afternoon recess for kids.
Brooks later clarified his message with another directive, reaffirming that “physical activity is an important part of the school day.”
That’s still the belief. Wichita schools, though, like many across the state, count physical education and brief, in-class “brain breaks” as physical activity – but that’s not the same as recess, Pappas said.
“Most experts in child development say unstructured play … is most beneficial,” he said.
Offering a variety of activities, such as four square, soccer or tetherball, in addition to standard slides and swings gives kids more freedom, Pappas said. Going over the rules for each game early in the school year prevents lots of playground problems.
“Kids like to be active, and they need choices,” he said.
Steve Coen, president and CEO of the Kansas Health Foundation, said his group financed the survey and accompanying report as part of its efforts to improve children’s health and wellness.
It was presented to the Kansas Board of Education in July, with a recommendation that leaders consider mandating at least some recess time statewide.
“We were curious. We felt like we needed some baseline information to find out where recess stood in Kansas,” Coen said.
“We heard a lot of anecdotal stories from teachers and others saying kids don’t get as much recess as they used to, or that recess is being cut to make room for other academic preparation.
“But we know that kids who are more physically fit do better in school. … And schools can make a huge impact.”
The report also recommends that whenever possible, schools should schedule recess before lunch. The Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Agriculture say that practice appears to result in children eating more fruits and vegetables, drinking more milk and throwing away less food.
Thompson, the Wichita official, said scheduling recess before lunch at some schools would be challenging because of scheduling logistics. “If there is some mandate from the state, that is something that as a district we would problem-solve,” she said.
According to the report, teachers at six Kansas elementary schools and 14 preschools said their schools don’t offer recess at all.
“I’d like to see some sort of mandate, if only that schools should offer recess and that it shouldn’t be withheld as punishment,” said Pappas, who taught PE for 32 years in Wichita.
“We recognize that teachers and schools are under a lot of pressure … but kids are, too,” he said.