Recess Is A Right

I posted a picture on our social media of a tweet from the 2006 MN Teacher of the Year Dr. Lee-Ann Stephens that read:  Advice to a new elementary school teacher:  never, every withhold recess from your students for any reason.  They need the activity and you need them to have the activity.  It shouldn’t be viewed as a privilege, but a part of your daily curriculum.

The post generated conversation which is awesome.  In this post, I hope to provide some context for recess as a right, not a privilege and some alternative strategies.

First, remember, behavior is communication and it always always always serves a purpose.  You can read a bit more about that here.  Once we determine the function of the behavior, we can find more appropriate ways to meet that function for/with the learner.  Okay, so let’s play this out with recess.

Basic scenario:  Learner is off task in class, out of seat, what have you.  Teacher subscribes to the “you waste my time, I’ll take your time” philosophy and responds with taking away 5-10-half-all of recess.

Behavior is communication.

  • What is the function of the off task behavior?  Is the learner avoiding the work?  Is the learner unsure what to do?  Is the learner “bored”?  Is the learner seeking attention from the teacher or from friends?
  • Are any of these functions met by reducing/eliminating recess?


(Side question:  have you ever taken recess from a child one time and never ever again?  Does it every work to change the behavior, teach the behavior we want to see, or is it a punishment we invoke because we’re frustrated?)

Why do we offer time in the school day for free movement?  Is recess really “their” time?  What is the role of recess in teaching and learning?  Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control endorse recess with policy statements outlining the cognitive, social emotional, physical, and academic benefits of regular unstructured play time for elementary age learners.  The slow whittling down/removal of recess has never been rooted in the evidence of development, teaching and learning, or best practice.  It has always been about increasing instructional time.  But, recess actually HELPS learners attend to task, focus, learn.

Let’s look at it another way.

Think about a time you’ve been in a long faculty meeting, professional development day, webinar, or something similar.  Even if the content is engaging, you may find yourself getting restless.  You may get up to go to the bathroom, get a drink, stand by the wall for a bit.  You may stretch in your seat, check your phone, or pick at your nail polish.  You can do what you need to do in order to get your attention back to the topic at hand – you can take self regulated brain breaks because you’re an adult.  If your admin or PD provider told you that getting out of your chair to stretch your legs would mean you do not get the scheduled break time everyone else gets, you would probably have strong feelings about that.  Because we all need breaks – whether we’ve “earned” them or not.

Taking away recess is a power move, not a teaching move.  Reframing all of our actions and reactions through a teaching lens means recess is not a bonus or a reward, but a critical and non negotiable part of a learner’s work.

Now that we know taking away bits, pieces, all of recess does not support our end goal of teaching and learning, what can/should we do instead?

Tackle the function.  Meet the need in an appropriate way.

So, if it’s escape, build in break cards, mindful moments, a quick “errand” that incorporates a little movement.

If it’s attention getting, what is driving it?  Is it teacher attention or peer attention that’s desired?  Use proximity, room arrangement, teacher talk cards or, if you can, take just a moment, get on the child’s level, and ask them what they need.  That very well may be enough.

They’re communicating with you.  Let’s be listeners, teachers, learners about our learners.  Restricting their movement and limiting their freedom creates barriers in our relationships and does not teach the behavior we want to see.

Make recess a right, not a privilege.  What are some other learner rights you feel are non-negotiable?


This Post Has One Comment

  1. Ericka Morris

    My students had extra recess sessions added in their week, Monday and Friday morning when they really needed it. I referred to that as “extra recess”. It was in addition to their regular daily (and too short) recess. The rule was, NO ONE could touch their daily recess, ever, for any reason. They could give away their extra recess though if their hw, etc wasn’t done. Now, this was hard to do-I added a 20 minute study hall session to the end of every school day, except for the early dismissal day because they had a special right before they left, AND they had Silent Time immediately after lunch, where they put their heads down and calmed and cooled off their bodies for 3 minutes, and then they could read, play a game draw, catch up on work, etc for about 10 more minutes. They also had a contact number where they could reach me until 900 pm nightly (this is not for everyone, I did it because I know some kids dont get home until LATE and well, It was all about handling situations asap vs letting them turn into a whole messed up day the next day). BAsically my kids knew that if they had ANY issues with their HW they could contact me-the “HW Hotline” and I would either help them solve the HW problem, or they would help me understand that I wasn’t able to teach them the way they needed to learn whatever it was and they were to “put it away and we will look at it tomorrow”. So my kids ALWAYS had their hw or I knew why they didn’t. So I (type) all that to say, that my students knew that recess was never on the chopping block, and as a result, they really took advantage of the time that I gave them through out the day to handle business. If they cut up in another class, they were to offer up their quiet time-as usually it was a detention type consequence anyway. Extra Recess was hard to lose, but they did if they had a lot of work that needed to get done-I also made sure that they didn’t go more than 48 hrs with missing work-so again hard to lose Extra Recess…lol I got a bit of push back from some teachers at times (no one ever took my kids’ recess though) but the kids would just use their silent time instead of recess, so if they ever got real “hype” about it I would know right away this wasn’t about my kid. Recess is a human right, like water and food. Period.

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