Trying to reclaim the attention of 22 pairs of glazed-over eyes, the fourth-grade teacher sighs. She knows that the slumped shoulders and wiggling feet of her students could use a literal breath of fresh air — a few minutes outside as a remedy for restless energy and tired minds. But such a recreational break is against school policy.
Her school, like many across North Texas, has cracked down on recess in the wake of mounting academic performance pressure. In fact, since No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001, the average amount of recess time has declined by 50 minutes per week to a current average of just 20 minutes per day. But with a third of all Texas children classified as overweight or obese and the prevalence of ADHD increasing by 16 percent in the last decade, many teachers and parents are questioning the decision to trim recess time.
However, some parents argue that while children need playtime, the best place for this to occur is at home. “I feel like that’s one of my jobs as a parent — to make sure they are getting outside time even if the school isn’t meeting all their needs there,” says Fort Worth mom of three Betsy Bradshaw. She prefers for her children to enjoy physical activity during the school day but doesn’t think providing recreation should be school’s main objective.
Former elementary school teacher and Denton mom Laurie Uk shares a similar view. “I don’t worry about it because we’re taking care of it on our end,” Uk says. “They’re all in athletic activities before and after school and on club teams.” But she does worry about the kids who aren’t involved in athletics, “Do those parents let their kids sit around or do they keep them active?” she ponders.
Schools have seemingly justifiable reasons for cutting back on recess. With increasing pressure from standardized testing leaving administrators and teachers with their jobs on the line, teachers usually try to minimize distractions and maximize instructional time. And it seems kids need all the help they can get, going to tutoring before and after school and working through recess in order to master necessary concepts.
But some parents wonder if this approach may actually serve to lower student performance. “When we had assessment tests, we skipped PE,” Uk says. “But I learn better with exercise-releasing endorphins. Testing is such a stressful thing. They need to let that energy out.” Uk always incorporated movement into the classes she taught, finding that it helped the students both mentally and physically.
Lois Frischmann, principal of Our Redeemer Lutheran School in Dallas, believes that free play allows children to rest their minds, ultimately improving attention spans in the classroom. “Research shows that recess or other kinds of free choice breaks only help students to learn and be much happier in the process,” Frischmann says. “Not surprisingly, it also keeps teachers happier.”
But teachers cite another hindrance to allowing children recess time. Feeling that their hands are tied in regard to classroom discipline — with reinforcement from home lacking and overworked administrators sometimes unable to help — many teachers believe that the only way to keep order in the classroom is to have a child sit out during recess as punishment for infractions.
Frischmann disagrees with that practice, claiming that it only intensifies the cycle of problematic behavior. “I don't like to withhold recess as discipline,” she says. “Having no play or movement can often increase the need for discipline. If we need to discipline, the recess time may include walking or some other type of activity that still removes them from peers for a period of time.”
Critics of withholding recess point to Finland’s radically different attitude toward combining school and play. Even though Finnish schools have shorter school days, children take a 15-minute recess break after every 45 minutes of instructional time, totaling around 75 minutes of recess per day. Yet with all this playtime, Finnish schools consistently place near the top of international academic rankings.
After a trip to Finland allowed her to observe these unusual recess policies firsthand, Debbie Rhea, Ed.D., professor and associate dean for health sciences and research at the Harris College of Nursing and Health Sciences at Texas Christian University, became convinced that more play could transform Texas schools. “It is very important that children get unstructured outdoor play every hour if possible, especially the elementary children,” Rhea says. “They are born to move and need to move as much as possible when young. The research shows that the brain needs physical activity in order to exchange and retain information.”
Rhea determined to bring the Finnish practices back to North Texas, forming Project ISIS (Innovating Strategies, Inspiring Students), a pilot program currently in place at a few local schools. Project ISIS incorporates four 15-minute recess breaks a day. Because some critics point to playground bullying as a pitfall of recess time, Rhea also incorporates character education into Project ISIS.
Gary Krahn, Ph.D., head of school at Trinity Valley School in Fort Worth, implemented Project ISIS last year. “It was very clear from the work in Finland and research from many neuroscientists that outdoor play is beneficial to learning,” Krahn says. He compares the current state of education to an artisan model of business that gave in to mass production. “Education has been in the mass production phase for 400 years,” Krahn explains. “The future of education is customization. With this transformation, play will naturally become a larger part of the school experience.”
But Rhea is not limiting the reach of Project ISIS to private schools. She piloted the program in two area schools last year and is planning to add several more Dallas-Fort Worth public schools in the coming year. One of Project ISIS’s pilot schools was a learning disability lab school. “It showed a significant academic performance change from last year to this year,” Rhea says.
She encourages parents to advocate for recess along with character education. "Parents are very powerful when it comes ot what schools will consider."