Play Time!
Diane Cargile, NAESP President
Communicator, Vol. 33, No. 7, March 2010

Recess! That’s the best part of the day, say elementary students. How many times have you stood on your school’s playground and simply soaked up the energy, exuberance, friendship, and sheer joy your students radiated during recess? I know I’m not alone when I confess to being irresistibly drawn out of the building by the boisterous, happy sounds of my students playing.

These wonderful moments remind me of the importance of balance. Teachers must focus on academics in the classroom, but principals also know that students need time to recharge during the school day. New research from Gallup, conducted with NAESP’s assistance, confirms what many principals already know: Teaching and learning in the classroom is enhanced by an orderly time for play during recess.

The research, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for Playworks, was recently issued in a report titled The State of Play. It opens with this compelling statement:

“Class size. Standardized testing. The three Rs. When most people talk about how to improve education, they tend to focus only on what happens in the classroom. But the most unexpected opportunity to boost learning lies outside the classroom: on the playground at recess.”

Exactly! Principals know that active children are more confident about their ability to learn and more creative in their problem-solving. We also know that well-managed recess periods help children establish and nurture relationships, resolve conflict, and make good decisions.

And yet, recess is becoming a vanishing part of the school day. The amount of time devoted to play and recess is shrinking—even in kindergarten. “Up to 40 percent of U.S. school districts have reduced or eliminated recess in order to free up more time for core academics, and one in four elementary schools no longer provides recess to all grades,” the report states, citing a growing body of evidence that says scaling back recess takes a toll on learning. Ironically, school districts that limit or eliminate recess to strengthen learning are likely to get just the opposite outcome.

But the report also notes that recess is not without its challenges. Principals well know that playground disagreements can erode into altercations, some students take advantage of hectic recess moments to bully others, and the transition from playground to classroom is often the most difficult one of the day. Even so, the benefits outweigh the difficulties.

The report offers six major findings:

  • Recess has a positive impact on achievement and learning, and two-thirds of principals report that students listen better and are more focused after recess;
  • Recess benefits child development in nonacademic ways, and almost all principals—97 percent—know that recess has a positive impact on children’s overall well-being;
  • Recess is a “precious commodity,” and 20 percent of principals say that adequate yearly progress testing requirements have caused a reduction in recess minutes;
  • Recess and good behavior are connected, but 77 percent of principals withhold recess as a punishment;
  • Nearly 90 percent of principals say that most behavior-related problems occur during recess or lunch; and
  • Principals are looking for help to improve recess—staff to monitor playgrounds, better equipment, and training.

The report is chock-full of useful insight, references to related research, and recommendations. Plus, its brevity makes it an easy and interesting read, and it couldn’t be more timely now that First Lady Michelle Obama has launched “Let’s Move,” a campaign to help kids be more active, support parents in developing good health habits for children, and create healthier schools. Here are links to the report, NAESP’s statement and press release, and the “Let’s Move” program. In addition, study results and recommendations will be featured during a session at NAESP’s national convention in Houston, April 8 to 11.

Principals play an important role in creating opportunities for all students to achieve their highest potential in school and in life. Recess is an important piece of the learning day. Let’s take play seriously and make time to play!

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