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Structured Recess: Why “R” Isn’t for “Running”

I was sitting with my coworkers during lunch, and as usual a couple of ladies who work as cafeteria/recess aides were eating beside us. As the aides were talking to each other one of them mentioned something about “walk and talk time.” It caught my attention since I’d noticed that everyday as I leave work and pass the playground area to head to my car, several of the kids are walking in pairs, in a loop approximately 60 yards around, over and over again. I asked, “Is that what I see the kids doing everyday around two when we leave?”

When she answered “yes,” I asked “what is that about?”

“The kids who aren’t wearing appropriate footwear have to “walk the loop.”

“I guess that’s to discourage running around in flip flops?” I asked.

“Oh, well there’s no ‘running around’ at all. We started ‘structured recess’ this year. There are four activites. Kids who don’t want to do one of the other three activities walk the loop, too. When the kids go outside, they get to choose their activity, but once they choose, that’s it. There’s no switching around.”

I was so immediately disgusted that I didn’t even think to ask what the other activities were before I spoke. (Although, I remember seeing a few kids playing 4 square one day). These were the recess aides after all, so I should have thought before I opened my opinionated mouth, but I didn’t.

“Oh—I would SOOOO be pitching a fit to the principal if I had a kid going here.”

“Why?” she asked.

Structured recess? They’re kids. Little kids. A bunch of five- to ten-year-olds who have to sit still for six hours. Their whole day is structured, from the time they get here to the second they go home. Even lunch is structured. They have to sit at a certain table, they’re not allowed to talk to anyone except the kids right next to them or across from them. They can’t even get up to throw away their napkin without asking permission first. For six hours it’s “sit still,” “pay attention,” “focus,” “concentrate,” “stop talking.” Recess is suppose to be their break from all the structure. It’s their chance to run and play or just sit in the grass and look at the clouds or talk with a friend, and now they can’t even do that during recess? They have to choose one of three specific structured activities that someone else planned, they can’t switch to a different one, or they “walk the loop”? I would SOO be throwing a fit over this.”

The other woman said, “Well, the kids didn’t like it at first, but they’ve gotten use to it.”

At this point, I noticed the expression on the first woman’s face and could tell she didn’t like what I’d said one little bit. So, I didn’t say what I wanted to say, which was “Yeah, and kids ‘get use’ to being physically and sexually abused too. Just because they get use to it doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.” Instead, I said, “I understand the reasoning behind it. Structured recess makes it easier for the adults. Each adult has their little group of kids, they’re all in one spot and you can watch them easier. I just believe that kids really need that time to run and play and be free to explore.”

Then the women who was clearly unhappy with me said, “Well, I’d like to see you out there with all those kids just running around.”

“I have. I’ve done it many times.”

I worked in daycare for three years. I also taught pre-K in a private school and was a substitute teacher for K-8. I’ve done recess hundreds of times with anywhere between 50-75 kids under my watch, usually with only one other adult around.

I came home and got on the school website to see what their policy was regarding recess. Look what I found on the district page—it’s a district adopted policy. Note what it says about the importance of unstructured free play, specifically.

{ 16 comments… add one }
  • Lacey November 13, 2011, 11:19 am

    We just finished Wrinkle in Time, and this reminds me of Cazotz, the land that was taken over by darkness. Yeah it’s easier on the adults, but this is absolutely ridiculous the the kids can’t change their mind and have to do one activity the whole time. I agree, just because someone becomes conditioned to it, doesn’t mean it’s right.

  • Bethany November 13, 2011, 12:26 pm

    How crazy! I remember so manyt imes where kids were mean or whatever so we would switch what we were doing several times throughout the recess to avoid them, or sometimes we just wanted to SIT and talk since we can’t talk in class, how dumb! So glad my kids don’t have that!

  • jks November 13, 2011, 6:22 pm

    I am very thrilled that my school gives my kids 2 real recesses (3 if a kid is in all day kindergarten which half the kids are) for their 6.5 hour day. I can’t tell you how horrified I was hearing about my nephew’s school in another state that had one recess OR PE per day. That’s it. In their 7 hour school day, including for their all day kindergarteners.
    I believe that learning goes up if you let the kids who need to move some time to move, because discipline problems go down because they are ready to learn. I am “for” recess…..even though I didn’t like it as a kid, and even though my kids are all the sit still types in school. I still think it is beneficial to them, as well as to the class as a whole, let alone individual kids who need it.
    Some times my kids play and have tons of fun. Sometimes they complain about kids not playing by the rules or some other problems. Sometimes they don’t remember what they did, they just walked around. I saw my son once. He was poking at dirt with a stick, all by himself. I couldn’t think of anything better he could do than take a break from his work and poke dirt with a stick and then go back inside ready to learn again.

  • Tracy Polyak November 14, 2011, 11:12 am

    I was recently talking to a woman at church, and her 8yo daughter has no PE, no music class, and recess is only twice per week! And then they come home with homework. It is no wonder that these kids are struggling in school.

  • partone November 14, 2011, 2:58 pm

    Wow, that is so over the top. But the parents just go along for the free ride.

  • jennycherie November 14, 2011, 5:27 pm

    aaaarrrrrrgh! The recess thing always gets my panties in a bunch! I feel like I’ve been fighting this (the tendency to take away recess or unrecess-ize it) for as long as my kids have been in school and I am sure it won’t change any time soon! Our school is not as structured as the one Tracy K works at, but they are *so* quick to take away recess over very minor things. One small improvement is that they have allowed students to do laps instead of having recess totally taken away. I still hate that that is a punishment (especially when kids OBVIOUSLY need a break), but it is better than standing on a line, which used to be the preferred choice.

    The one thing that REALLY makes me CRAZY about this issue? An employer (including the school) cannot require employees to work more than four hours without a 15 minute paid break. Likewise, they cannot require an employee to work more than six hours without a 30 minute (paid or unpaid) break. These breaks MUST be duty free, which is, if I understand correctly, why our schools now hire recess and lunch aides. We can’t require the teachers to be “on duty” for the lunch breaks, so we have to hire someone else to supervise them during lunch/recess. So, we have to make sure the ADULTS have their breaks, but the KIDS get NO break. They have strict ridiculous requirements for lunch and recess. I mean, no running at recess? What is the point? Running is a GREAT way to spend recess. What’s next? Tear down the swing sets?
    jennycherie recently posted…Fear 101My Profile

  • Amber Mae November 14, 2011, 10:17 pm

    Wow. That makes my blood boil. JennieCherie – what a great point! Legally adults get breaks, but not kids? There’s no real logic behind it. Grrr… I can’t think what else to say, just grrr!
    Amber Mae recently posted…“skirty” feelings – hee heeMy Profile

  • Tracy Keeney November 15, 2011, 2:23 pm

    Jenn– GREAT point about the legal REQUIRMENT to give employees a break. I’ve often commented on how the kids NEED recess to get that “break” from having to concentrate, sit still, etc. They need to run and get those endorphins going. But I never thought about the legal requirement for employees. It shows even MORE, how ridiculous it is for the schools to be cutting back on recess.
    Check this out– and I PROMISE I’m not making this up for the conversation. This JUST happened today during lunch. A recess aide “sub” was eating lunch with us today, and the other aide was explaining to her that she was going to have the 4th and 5th grade recesses today, and was explaining the “new way” they’re doing it, since this sub hasn’t worked there this year, and I learned a new element to their recess plan.
    Apparently, the third grade recess kids aren’t even allowed to be on the grass. Their teachers have given the instruction that the kids are to stay ON the pavement. I’m not sure how it came to be that the teachers get to design their own rules for recess, but this really grates on my nerves!

  • Alison Moore Smith November 15, 2011, 5:17 pm

    jennycherie, what a great point. Amen.

    Seriously, I do not know why parents put up with this crap. I know that being a homeschooler has put me in a different frame of mind, but I sincerely don’t understand why the “goodies” of public education are worth accepting all the stupidity.

    Stand up for your kids!
    Alison Moore Smith recently posted…Principle-Centered Home EducationMy Profile

  • jennycherie November 15, 2011, 10:13 pm

    too right – it is a lot of crap. If more people would complain, things would change. I am frequently told that I am the only parent who has complained about ___. THAT makes me even MADder than the dumb policy in the first place.
    jennycherie recently posted…Fear 101My Profile

  • Alison Moore Smith November 16, 2011, 3:41 pm

    When my oldest was in kindergarten, the administration sent home a paper telling parents that the sex-ed program was about to start and parents could review it in the library during particular dates.

    We went in to see it toward the end of that time period. The librarian had to dig out the binder — because not a single other parent had bothered to come in.

    I am baffled again and again.
    Alison Moore Smith recently posted…Principle-Centered Home EducationMy Profile

  • Jeric November 17, 2011, 7:29 am

    A good school will always provide a daily recess time especially for kids. When i was a kid, we had a 20minutes break everyday where we could spend sometime talking to our friends or eat snacks or play anything. Recess helps the children grow and mature.

  • Beth November 21, 2011, 12:50 pm

    Yikes! Recess without any free choice does not sound fun. Kids need a break to run, socialize, play and have fun. That’s the definition of recess. I think the word “structure” gets a bad rep. It’s about creating organization so kids and adults feel safe. However, the “structure” they described doesn’t allow for freedom or choice and is entirely arranged by adult authorities; that is not right!

    When schools are having challenges with discipline, safety and/or bullying at recess, adults and STUDENT leaders need to work together. I see many safe, fun school recesses; they all have guidelines (rules and a map to the playground), several games that any kids can join because they were taught the rules, and encourage positive conflict resolutions by teaching tools such as rock-paper-scissors. If I was a parent or staff at that school, I too would stand up to this “structured recess”! Here are some tips from the non-profit I work for: http://www.playworks.org/blog/you-school-recess-ready.
    Beth recently posted…Fueling Playtime with Healthy FoodMy Profile

  • Dan December 8, 2011, 4:02 pm

    I think a majority of those that have posted above ought to consider the research on the empirically defined Structured Recess before standing on a soap box made of rhetoric, gut feelings and speculation.

    Your passion about what you know little of belies a greater problem with education. You have vociferously illuminated your own ignorance; congratulations.

    That is all.


  • Whitney December 20, 2011, 12:41 am

    I’m not a parent, but my reaction is simply that this is the natural result of funding cuts to schools. It’s too bad, because I’m sure lots of kids would benefit from unstructured recess. Either regular recess time is supervised by an inadequate number of adults, leading to bullying and injuries, or recess time is structured in a way so that kids can still get some exercise but can be adequately supervised by fewer adults. The other option is to cut out recess altogether. The school district is just trying to make the best of a bad situation.

  • jennycherie December 20, 2011, 5:13 am

    Dan – rather than just to lash out at people you disagree with, perhaps you could present and defend your point of view. Just a suggestion – particularly if you’d like anyone to have a chance to figure out what you are trying to say, other than that you disagree and we’re all clearly ignorant.

    Whitney -not sure I follow – you think that the recess is inadequately supervised and that is why they have moved to more structure? I suppose that is possible. What I remember from childhood is that our teacher was always the only supervising our entire class. Sometimes the two classes from one grade level would go out together with just one teacher to watch. Now, we often have 3-4 recess aides out at a time, and they are often in a cluster chatting, rather than spread out truly supervising. To me, that is a problem of school leadership and training, but at our school, we don’t really have problems with structured recess. Our only problem is the constant removal of recess from the most wiggly kids!
    jennycherie recently posted…Joy to the WorldMy Profile

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