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Stop taking away recess (and make it longer, too), Baltimore County advocates say

kids-playground-2-1502220A new advocacy group is calling for at least 40 minutes of recess per day at public elementary schools in Baltimore County. The group, Maryland Advocates for Play, also wants a formal policy that would stop teachers from withholding recess as a form of punishment.

They will have a meeting this Saturday, April 16, for anyone who wants to learn more; click here for details.

“Research shows very clearly that young children need a certain amount of free, unstructured playtime during each school day, not only for their physical health, but also for their emotional health and growth,” said Hillary Martell of Towson, co-founder of MAP, and the mother of three young children. “From what many parents of Baltimore County elementary school students have told me, this just isn’t happening. Some parents report that their children get as little as 15 minutes of recess a day. That is unacceptable.”

Hillary Martell

Hillary Martell

BCPS officials say they now aim for 20 minutes of recess for kids in elementary school.

“The current national research/data recommends at least 20 minutes of recess daily in elementary schools.  The national position paper [from the National Association for Sport and Physical Education] also supports that 20 minutes of recess is an essential component of a comprehensive school physical activity program and important to the ‘whole child’ development,” said Michelle L. Proser, BCPS’ coordinator of the Offices of Health and Physical Education.

“Currently, we do not have a specific policy on withholding recess; but, as a system we don’t condone it. We are currently developing proposed policy that would address this issue,” Proser said.

Here’s what some of the experts say about recess:

“Recess serves as a necessary break from the rigors of concentrated, academic challenges in the classroom. But equally important is the fact that safe and well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it. Recess is unique from, and a complement to, physical education — not a substitute for it. The American Academy of hide-and-seek-1436876Pediatrics believes that recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.” — The American Academy of Pediatrics

“Educational research, in contrast to current educational policy, consistently indicates that break time does have positive ‘educational value.’ For example, in four field experiments conducted in American elementary schools, we found … that the longer children worked without a break on standardized tasks, the less attentive to the task they became. In addition, children were more attentive to class work after recess than before.” — Center for Early Education and Development

Educational research, in contrast to current educational policy, consistently indicates that break time does have positive ‘educational value.’

“A positive school climate has been linked to a host of favorable student outcomes, from attendance to achievement, according to the [Stanford University] study. It includes four key elements for students – physical and emotional safety at school; positive relationships with peers and adults; support for learning; and an institutional environment that fosters school connectedness and engagement.” — Stanford News

Martell and BCPS parent Jenni Mumford recently spoke to the Baltimore County school board about recess. You can see their testimony below, or read a transcript here.

And here’s a Q&A that Martell did with The Towson Flyer:

Tell us about the goals of the group; what do you want BCPS to do?

We want every child in every class K-5 to have a minimum of 40 minutes per day of recess. Recess is not P.E., nor is it a movement class, or a “brain break” video. It is free, undirected play where the child can choose how to play and with whom.

Are there any standards now that BCPS must follow in terms of recess time?

No. There seem to be some suggested schedules, but written in policy available to the public there is no mention of a minimum time that recess should be provided. The amount of recess varies widely across the county. Some schools are offering 45 minutes in kindergarten, yet only 20 minutes to first grade and up. Some are offering only 15 minutes for all grades. It’s different at every school and seems to be somewhat dependent on the principal and the teacher.

I know when the weather is bad and there’s “indoor recess,” kids often play on their devices. Are you OK with that, or do you want to see them up and moving in the classroom?

jungle-gym-climbing-1423918First of all, we feel the criteria for indoor recess are much too conservative. We’ve become a culture where anything that isn’t 70 degrees and sunny is unsuitable for outside play. There are many parts of the country where kids are outside playing even when temperatures are below freezing. Our children aren’t so fragile that they can’t spend 20 minutes outside in a drizzle rain. We sympathize with the logistics involved in getting kids ready to go outside, but outside play is important and should not be so easily taken away. When we had the blizzard this past winter, for example, there were many schools that didn’t have outside recess for an entire month.

Of course, there are going to be times when an indoor option should definitely be provided. In the case of very extreme weather kids should be allowed to have recess indoors. During those times kid should be given the opportunity to play as they would at an outdoor recess. Playing on a device or watching a movie gives the kids none of the benefits free play provides. They don’t socialize when they’re looking at a screen, they aren’t moving their bodies, they aren’t solving problems as a group, they aren’t being creative, or manipulating objects with their hands. If schools are looking for a way to provide play to kids on days when they can’t take them outside, give them a box of Legos, give them some clay, give them some empty paper towel rolls and some masking tape! You’d be amazed at how little it takes to provoke great creativity in kids.

Our children aren’t so fragile that they can’t spend 20 minutes outside in a drizzle rain.

Obvious as it may be, why do you feel recess is important? 

Children learn best through play. Take a group of kids building a tower with blocks, for example. To an adult it seems like a simple activity that provides a few minutes of entertainment to a kid. In reality, there are significant lessons being learned as the kids try to negotiate between themselves where to place the blocks. Conflicts arise where the kids disagree on how it should look and they take moment to talk and resolve the issue. They learn that the bigger blocks on the bottom make for a sturdier structure. They learn that four of the smaller blocks are the same size as one of the big blocks. They learn that when the tower falls it can feel frustrating and they know where to make improvements to the structure when they rebuild it. Try to find a worksheet that can offer as many valuable lessons as 10 minutes of block time.  This is a simple example, but it extends even though the older grades. Organizing two soccer teams or for example can offer very similar lessons.

Recess is the only time where the kids are in charge of themselves. In an environment where everything that happens in the classroom now has to be measured and quantified, kids are given no time to make choices and solve problems on their own. Even during “center time” where kids get to move between different activities within the classroom, they have a list of tasks they need to complete at each center. I’ve even heard examples of kids being given block time where they are told what to build.

playground-kids-4-1439215There are also obvious physical benefits to more recess. Children are becoming increasingly sedentary and recess can aid greatly in giving our kids much needed exercise.

Additionally, when kids are given frequent recess breaks, studies have shown that the amount of time needed for kids to learn new academic concepts shortens and their retention improves. Teachers have also noticed an improvement in behavior problems and focus when frequent recess breaks are provided throughout the day.

Are you seeking any policies in terms of teachers not being able to withhold recess? 

Yes, this is a critical part of our platform. In our goals we state, “We ask the county to adopt a written policy that states recess should never be taken away for punitive or weather related reasons and that only in the case of very extreme weather should an indoor recess option be provided.”

There are many studies that show kids who are given more recess tend to behave better in class.

There are many studies that show kids who are given more recess tend to behave better in class.  There is a correlation between the ability of kids to focus and the amount of play they are given. We feel it is not appropriate to use recess as leverage to get kids to behave better and it is often counterproductive and harmful to the child who is struggling. Additionally, this isn’t exclusive to behavior problems. Some teachers make kids who haven’t finished an assignment to stay in during recess until it is completed. We’ve heard from a number of parents with kids who have a learning disability such as dyslexia who are often unable to attend recess because they’re stuck inside finishing an assignment thus gaining none of the academic benefit that a recess break would provide them.

What should parents do if they want to see more recess?preschool-girls-on-playground-1565814

First talk to your child’s teacher and principal. Find out why recess is being limited at your school and offer to help where appropriate. Also, talk to your PTA. You’ll likely find you are not the only one who is concerned about the lack of play in schools.

If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s that parents need to speak up. When we’re all talking amongst ourselves noticing something is wrong, yet no one is making an effort to change things, we’re forgetting, as one friend put it, that the schools exist to serve our families and our communities, not the other way around.

Maryland Advocates for Play is online at and on Facebook. For details about the April 16 meeting, click here.

–Kristine Henry

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6 Comments on "Stop taking away recess (and make it longer, too), Baltimore County advocates say"

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Been there

Recess is social time. A chance to interact with other children on their own. Taking recess away makes a child feel abused. And will turn a child away from trying. Adults are the worst teachers. Plain and simple.

Middle School Parent

Thanks for this article Kris! It is so important to give kids room to breathe and just be. . . . I wish they would think about the needs of older children, too. They may not be able or want to run around a playground, but they need a break or two during the day as well. I spent the full day with my daughter during American Education Week, and I was exhausted and aggravated by the end of the day. They just race from one class to another, with no down time at all. That is not acceptable for adults in the workplace (in school workplaces, too!), why is it ok for the kids in school? A little down time goes a long way.

What about all types?
What about all types?

Here is the problem with advocacy groups – they are hyper focused. I do not see a demand for open discussion. I do not see a thought process that includes the children who benefit from the recess as it is. The question is not… wait… there is no question here… so the question could be.. “How is it that we accommodate all childrens personalities?” My child benefits from the higher structure and suffers from less anxiety by having shorter recesses. My child is frequently picked on at the playground and comes home saying he dislikes recess and lunch. I am not against more or longer recesses, the question is… how will the children that require higher structure both in social situation and in the learning environment be handled if such a demand is accommodated?

Balt parent

I am so sorry that is happening to your son. I don’t think a shorter recess is the answer. The school should work with the kids on being inclusive and work with your son on how to respond to mean kids. The teachers could also offer some structured recess activities for those who want to participate (though it should never be mandatory to take part in structured play).

BCPS parent

Great article! Thank you for covering the issues parents are concerned about in Baltimore County Public Schools. Let’s hope this leads to good change. Now that common core is not connected to federal dollars, maybe Maryland will reconsider what the school days should look like to benefit children (and teachers) most.