Recess: Much More than Just Fun

By Emily Hines

What comes to mind when you picture a typical high school student? Nowadays, many of us probably picture an overworked, lethargic teenager trudging down a busy hallway, weighed down by a heavy backpack. Perhaps we imagine a dedicated girl typing away at a paper late at night in her room, or a boy who, after baseball practice, rushes off to debate team and then realizes he’s skipped dinner. Regardless of what you see, there seems to be common ground among today’s teenagers—they’re busy, extremely hard working, and stressed out.

Students in America’s high schools are stressed out and overworked, often going through long school days without even a few minutes for a break. Image Source.

The 2009 documentary film, Race to Nowhere, depicts the typical high school student in a similar way: swamped, stressed out, overworked, and high-achieving. One scene features a tired-eyed student lamenting that she “would spend six hours a night on homework.” Students, the film argues, are pressured into constantly looking toward the next step—take hard classes, get good grades, get into a good college, get a good job, make a lot of money—so that they are never satisfied, constantly racing toward a “nowhere” in which nothing they do will be good enough. While working hard in school may help students secure good jobs and create stable lives for themselves down the line, the mindset that there is always something else to strive for will stick with them forever. Even the most successful neurosurgeon may one day find himself wishing he were the chief of surgery all because of the pressures put on him in high school.

While we do need to recognize that this is a broad generalization and does not encompass many high schools where under-achieving is more of an issue than over-achieving, we can still recognize that the issue of overworked students is prevalent enough that it needs attention. My proposed solution to this problem won’t give kids less homework or get them excused from standardized tests—what it will do, however, is decrease stress by giving them an opportunity to blow off steam, ultimately helping them maintain focus and manage their time better throughout the day. I propose that high school students get time in their day for recess.

Simply put, students need a break. Twenty minutes a day to run around, have fun, and, for lack of a better term, “be a kid.” The constant “go, go, go” atmosphere of high school leaves teenagers gasping for air, rushed from one obligation to another with no time to just “be.” A simple 20-minute recess each day will change that by providing a much-needed break in an otherwise uninterrupted schedule.

An article published in Pathways to Family Wellness breaks down the benefits of recess pretty clearly. Recess “increases focus, improves wellness, reduces stress, develops social skills, and provides opportunity for physical activity.” While it may seem like kids are just goofing off to pass the time, they are actually developing critical skills that can help them once they go back inside to their classrooms. Free time to interact, whether running around or just sitting and talking, aids in cognitive development (creativity, abstract thinking, problem-solving), language development (communication skills), and social development (cooperation, conflict resolution, leadership skills). So why does recess only have a spot in elementary schools? Something this beneficial, straightforward, and easy to implement should be provided for students of all ages.

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If students are given just a twenty-minute recess each day, their focus and engagement in the classroom will noticeably increase. Image Source.

Our brains undoubtedly continue to mature and change well past our teen years, and new research suggests that the brain is not fully developed until age 25. While many high school students may be under the impression that they are fully developed, a lot goes on internally long past puberty that they are unaware of. That being said, the benefits of recess can be influential long after elementary school.

According to Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbidge, “the experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain…and without play experience, those neurons aren’t changed.” Certain changes in the prefrontal cortex can only occur during unstructured time, when kids have to interact and work together to decide what to do, what games to play, or what ideas to discuss. The ability to work together without the aid of an adult helps kids hone their ability to make plans and solve problems, and ultimately enhances the functioning of what Pellis calls the “brain’s executive control center.” Up until age 25, allowing kids time to play freely can help “build a better brain,” which seems to be the goal of so many high schools anyway. And building this “better brain” doesn’t take any complicated pedagogy or fancy standardized tests—in this case, kids get smarter the less instruction we give them.

While many high school administrators look down on recess because it gives students time to “do nothing” and therefore accomplish nothing, research has proven that unstructured free time actually aids in more productive studying. People “learn better and faster when their efforts are distributed, rather than concentrated” because they are able to pinpoint their focus over specific amounts of time. Psychologist Dr. Alejandro Lleras recently conducted a study in which he had participants focus on a computer-based task for an hour. One group of participants was given a short break in the middle of the task, while one group of participants was not. Not surprisingly, the group given the short break performed better on the task. If we focus on one task for an extended period of time, we begin to forget its importance and become less and less dedicated to completing it. “Deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused,” Lleras explains. And one of the biggest problems in high schools today is students’ inability to focus through extremely lengthy school days. This is why the break in students’ days needs to be a “recess”—a time when the expectation is that they are on a complete and total break, with no expectations and no obligations

The Huffington Post recently published an article claiming that the average adult needs seven hours of free time a day to “be happy.” It seems as if we value free time in people of all ages except for high school students. We understand that young children need time to play and explore the world for themselves, and we expect adults to have 1 hour and 6 minutes of completely “personal time” a day. Finding a balance between work and play is often suggested in literature for adults, too. A Wellsource “Monthly Health Challenge” pamphlet encourages readers to break up a day at work by taking a walk, going on a bike ride, or planning a service project. Breaks in the day, the pamphlet explains, helps reduce health risks (lowers blood pressure, reduces the risk of stroke) and keep stress levels under control. Various studies have found that taking one-and-a-half minute breaks regularly throughout a workday increases productivity by 6.45%, and upping those breaks to two minutes increases productivity to 11.15%. Breaks, therefore, enhance overall productivity in addition to improving mental health.

If the purpose of high school is to prepare teenagers for the real world, they need to be given completely unstructured free time during which they can decide what to do and ration out their own time. And this seems much easier than cramming in hour upon hour of standardized test prep. Giving teens a chunk of time during which they can relax and do what they want will give teachers a break too, and everyone will return to the classroom revived and ready to learn.

In order for this policy to be effective, the definition of “recess” needs to be clear. The time should be completely unstructured, and students should be given, if possible, open space to run around (a field, a gymnasium, etc.). They can run around, shoot hoops, play baseball, sit and talk, or come up with their own creative way to pass the time. While this may seem counterproductive at first, recess should also be designated as time to “have fun”—no homework, no studying. While having the option of study hall may seem appealing in that it gives students a chance to get a head start on homework, a study hall still requires that students remain focused on academic tasks. This is not a true “break,” and will therefore not have the same emotional and psychological benefits as the studies I previously mentioned.

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Providing students with an open space to run around freely aids in cognitive development and gives them a chance to blow off steam. Image Source.

And there’s always the opposite problem—what about kids who would use recess unproductively, as a time to get into trouble or even pick fights with other students? While unstructured time can definitely be seen as a potential danger, I argue that we need to have a little more faith in our teenagers. If we don’t give them recess simply because we are afraid they will take advantage of the system, we’re really just robbing them of its benefits, both emotional and educational. Keeping students in classrooms all day to control their behavior is a cyclical ideology that plagues our education system—stick kids in classrooms all day long, and when they become restless or start to act out, stick them in detention or give them extra assignments to do that just make them more restless and inclined to misbehave. As I’ve said, a little break goes a long way—there’s even a chance that recess will help improve behavior by providing the most restless students with an outlet for pent-up energy. If we genuinely want to better the education and lives of our students, then giving them recess is a risk we need to be willing to take.

Once we realize that we really do need recess, the issue of practicality is also one that needs to be addressed. Teachers have lots on their agendas, and a typical school day is run with back-to back-activities that all seem integral to preparing students for standardized tests and helping them become “college ready.” Where would recess fit in?

The reality is that sacrifices will have to be made. While it may seem undesirable to make classes shorter, it is even less undesirable to have classes filled with lethargic, unproductive students who are unfocused simply because they go through the day without a break. Taking a few minutes away from class time will make the actual class sessions more engaging and productive, ultimately making up for missed time.

Let’s take Grinnell Community High School, for example. A regular schedule day has 6 periods, each one an hour long. All that is necessary to implement change would be to simply take 3 minutes from each class and lump them into 18 minutes dedicated to “recess.” Classes would go from being 60 minutes to 57 minutes, a small sacrifice to make for a change with an impact this big.

While logistical issues related to specific schools will undoubtedly present themselves, I am confident that individual administrations can find ways to move around their schedule slightly so that recess can be incorporated. The Race to Nowhere website is scattered with examples of school districts that have implemented some sort policy change as a response to the documentary—Jay Jackson, the assistant principal at Irvington High School in Fremont, California recently pushed start times back 45 minutes in order to give students more time to sleep, and one high school in Quebec has decided to ban homework. Montpelier High School in Vermont even decided to give its kids 15 minutes of recess a day last year, and the results were significant. Students described themselves as “more calm and focused, and with a camaraderie that continues into the classroom.” These small acts see real results and hint at the widespread changes that can be implemented across the board and impact the lives of a majority of American students.

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Giving students recess will ultimately create happier individuals who are more in-tune with their schoolwork, their environments, and each other. Image Source.

Schools create their schedules and their curriculums based on what they value, and I am simply proposing that schools as a whole start to value free time more. In a society that has become increasingly more fast-paced, we need to fight against this shifting ideology and remind our children that taking personal time to blow off steam is important. The way to make kids smarter is not to cram their minds full of facts in preparation for the next exam. We need to give them time, free time, to develop their own intellects so that they can be engaged and excited to be in the classroom. If we are going to set such high standards for kids, we should at least do all that we can to help the kids meet them. I’m not saying I agree with standardized curriculums or the insanely high expectations instated by the college application process, but changing those things is hard. Giving kids 18 minutes a day to better prepare themselves to deal with those things isn’t.

One response to “Recess: Much More than Just Fun

  1. Although I commend your paper and writing style, I am still not convinced that this would work for high-school students. A lot of the studies you site refer to elementary and middle school children, and although a high school student’s brain is still developing, it seems as though a 20 minute recess period would not have the same effect. In today’s society, a typical high school student doesn’t run around as much as elementary and middle-school students do during recess. They are generally on their phones or lollygagging around. Also, how did you come up with 20 minutes? There isn’t really any evidence for this number.
    You also address the fact that recess would be stress free with no focus on homework or studying. This seems like a good idea, but with all of the homework and cramming you mention, wouldn’t students just take this 20 minute period as a time to quickly do homework before a class or get a head start? Would teachers then force students to not do any homework? As you mention, this would be a time for teenagers to do anything they wanted. It just seems to me that students with a short period of 20 minutes, students would not do the things that you propose they would.
    Also, since this would be a time of separation between students and faculty, teenagers could use this time to commit illegal acts, like consume street drugs. There would be no regulation of this, and teachers wouldn’t know.
    All in all, I do like the idea of having a small break in between classes in order to improve productivity and reduce stress, but this policy just doesn’t seem practical in today’s society.

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