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Is 15 Minutes of Recess Too Much to Ask?

15 minutes per day.

That's the amount of recess time that researchers say elementary schoolchildren need to behave better in class. Unfortunately, 40 percent of U.S. schools do not provide children with recess, according to the International Play Association, which fights for childrens' rights to play.

The latest study, published in the journal Pediatrics, looks at a national data-set of third-graders. The researchers chose these 8 and 9 year olds as a midway look at elementary schoolers. "Older kids have longer attention spans," said the study's lead author, Dr. Romina Barros, an assistant professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "Studies on age show the younger kids are, the less the brain can pay attention. In college, 45 minutes to an hour is as long as the attention span can take. Younger kids are less than that."

In the look at recess time released today, Barros says that the behavior benefits don't change with increased recess times of 30 or 45 minutes per day, though that needs to be studied more closely.

In general, children have lost about 12 hours per week in free time, including a 25 percent decrease in play and a 50 percent decrease in unstructured outdoor activities, according to a previous study by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

Children who don't have recess at school tend to be from lower-income families and from black and Hispanic groups, the study says. "This raises concern, in light of evidence that many children from disadvantaged backgrounds are not free to roam their neighborhoods or even their own yards unless they are accompanied by adults. For many of these children, recess periods may be the only opportunity for them to practice their social skills with other children."

Barros believes that the loss of recess comes from a variety of issues including overcrowded schools that have had to turn recess space into classrooms and schools' fear of liability if children get hurt during recess. In unsafe neighborhoods, kids playing outside at school are more exposed. Add to that the pressure schools face in reaching No Child Left Behind standards that don't account for recess as part of the education plan.

How important has recess been to you in your evaluations of your elementary schools? Do you find that your school has too little, too much or the right amount of unstructured play time and adult supervision during that time?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  January 26, 2009; 9:00 AM ET  | Category:  Elementary Schoolers
Previous: The Ones Left Behind | Next: The New Toy Safety Rules and You


That statistic from the International Play Association is pretty darn vague and therefore not terribly helpful in determining how bad this problem actually is. If ALL US schools (and, well, that's how they phrased it!) are in fact included in that figure, then "40% of US schools have no recess" is a lot less concerning ... since it would include high schools, where no one expects there to be recess. Did they specifically mean elementary schools? If so, they should say so.

Posted by: gmg22 | January 26, 2009 12:06 PM | Report abuse

Physical activity, including recess, was a key in our selecting private school for our kids over our public alternatives. Our middle school child has 50 minutes of PE each day. Our youngest has 30 minutes of recess per day and 45 minutes of PE three days a week. To me, devoting this time to physical activity sends a message to our kids that staying physically fit is as important to mental and physical health as staying academically fit. When they feel good, they learn better.

Posted by: anonfornow | January 26, 2009 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Clearly, there is not enough recess. The information is incredibly vague. Does it mean 15 minutes IN A 24 HOUR DAY? How ridiculous. Kids need well more than that.
In a 7 hour school day (ridiculous, in and of itself) - kids most definitely need more than 15 minutes recess. They need closer to an hour. I'm not extremely happy that my child gets so little recess. They have recess every day, PE I think 2 times a week. We have him in Kung Fu as well - that's twice a week (and just signed him up for soccer). And I try to take the kids to the park when I can. Not now, as it's TOO COLD outside. *sigh*.
The kids run around the house, too, but it's never enough.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | January 26, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

With one child in public school [8th grade] this is a big concern--even at his age. It was far worse when he was little. He desperately needed time to run off some energy. His school today is creative about sneaking in more time for exercise and relaxation. After they eat lunch kids MUST leave the cafeteria and go to gym. Sitting is not allowed. They can run or walk laps, walk or run the bleachers, do aerobics or shoot baskets. They MUST move! Teachers, office staff and administrators insure kids move, but do not assign activities. They walk, shoot baskets, etc, and are welcomed in the mix. I'm not at all puzzled why his afternoon grades are better than his morning grades.

Posted by: lbh21 | January 26, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

Our girls' school gives 1st-3rd graders 2 15-20 min. recess periods a day. They also have their lunch hour which is 20 minutes for eating a 40 minutes for playing outside, unless you choose to go home for lunch. 4th and 5th graders get one recess period and lunch recess. I love it and think it is completely necessary to keep kids focused when they are in the classroom.

Posted by: thosewilsongirls | January 26, 2009 12:30 PM | Report abuse

I work in the public school system as a behavior management specialist and a parent coach. I work with children who need to take a break and to engage in physical activity to survive the day. Physical activity can improve physical health as well as mental health. As a parent coach I am constantly encouraging parents to allow for their children to enjoy more physical activity and playtime. Don't we all need more??
coach jamie

Posted by: coachjamie | January 26, 2009 12:49 PM | Report abuse

I think kids need recess and that some classroom problems are the result of bodies that need to run off some energy. But recently Jay Matthews ran a column suggesting that recess is a big disaster for inner-city schools, that the break and subsequent time needed to get everyone re-focused was a problem.

It makes me think that kids ne "PE" more than a free-form recess which can open opportunities for bullying and other problems.

Posted by: RedBird27 | January 26, 2009 1:19 PM | Report abuse

I say that early grade school children actually learn more on the playground than they do in the classroom. "5, 10, 15, 20, 25.., hundret, ready or not, here I come" With that, I remember my older brother teaching me how to tell time in a 3 minute explanation before my kindergarten bus was to arrive.

Not only is there an academic benifit to children's games, the playground is where kids learn all the important stuff like who can run the fastest, jump the highest or the most ropes, and who the cool girls are, and the ones who scream in terror when a worm gets dangled in front of their face. They learn to assess their own abilities, develop skills and coordination, how to deal with bulleying, and so much more.

I doubt that many of our most influential leaders in America, Congressmen can do basic academic tasks like name Euclid's 6 postulates, calculate the volume of a trapezoid, or recite the date that the ERA bill was passed. The fact is, people don't need to know these things to be effective managers or leaders. However, they do need to know how to socialize and assess other people's abilities or they wouldn't be in the position they are in.

It all begins on the playground!

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | January 26, 2009 1:36 PM | Report abuse

RedBird, I read the same column, and I disagree pretty strongly with it. I think most people agree that kids need run-around time; my own borderline-ADHD 7-yr-old is the poster child for that (summer was a dream -- her camp had her running around outside for 5 hrs every day).

But I don't think substituting gym for recess answers the question. Kids also need time without grownups making the rules and telling them what to do. My daughter wants more than anything to show the adults around her that she is competent and well-behaved -- but it takes all her energy to do that. By the end of school, she is both mentally exhausted and physically bursting at the seams. She needs some grownup-free downtime just to run around. Yes, gym is better than sitting at the desk, but it's still more grownups, with more rules to follow.

But even beyond that, I don't think this very adult-oriented life many kids have is doing them any favors I want my kids to learn to be independent, creative, individual, productive, critical-thinking, self-supporting, self-entertaining, etc. Yay rah, go team. But where, exactly, is my daughter going to learn all this, when every day is filled with adults telling her what to do? She's learning to sit still and follow rules, which is good; but she's also learning that she doesn't have to worry about thinking or being creative, because that's someone else's job -- she just needs to do what she's told. We want them to become self-reliant, yet never give them the opportunity to try. When I was 7, I spent every afternoon and weekend running around the neighborhood, because that's what everyone did; now, of course, I can't let her run around by herself, but even if I could, there wouldn't be much of a point to it: all the other kids are busy with their own appropriately-supervised activities.

How are our kids are going to learn to make up games, decide roles, and of course follow the time-honored tradition of arguing about the rules, if there are always grownups around deciding everything for them?

Posted by: laura33 | January 26, 2009 1:49 PM | Report abuse

"she just needs to do what she's told."

Laura, that's the point of today's public education system. It is designed to produce followers, not leaders. That's why girls are doing so much better than boys in school nowadays.

Yanking recess, then doping boys into chemical restraint as a solution for hyperactivity is part of the plan.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | January 26, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

As someone who was extremely uncoordinated as a child and ALWAYS picked last for every team, I can't imagine having recess taken away and substituted with PE. If the idea is to help kids with issues like obesity and hyperactivity by allowing them some additional time to engage in physical activity, then gym class is the wrong way to do it. For many years, I hated exercise because I associated it with harsh, punitive (for some reason ours was East German, I kid you not) gym teachers barking orders at me while i wore an ugly gym suit. Years later, I discovered that dancing and walking and running, riding bikes and so forth were great fun and that even if you're not an "athlete" you can still enjoy physical activity. Adding more gym class may just end up making kids fatter and more sedentary since they too will learn to associate physical activity with harsh, punitive regimes.

Posted by: Justsaying4 | January 26, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

I doubt that many of our most influential leaders in America, Congressmen can do basic academic tasks like name Euclid's 6 postulates, calculate the volume of a trapezoid, or recite the date that the ERA bill was passed.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | January 26, 2009 1:36 PM | Report abuse

When was the ERA passed?

Posted by: jezebel3 | January 26, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

When was the ERA passed?

March 1972 by the 92nd Congress.

Posted by: anonthistime | January 26, 2009 3:30 PM | Report abuse

ERA was never ratified. It expired prior to ratification.

Posted by: Stephanotis1 | January 26, 2009 3:39 PM | Report abuse

True, Stephanotis1, but the question was "the date that the ERA bill was passed...." and it did pass Congress.

Ratification was a different matter.

Posted by: elias_howe | January 26, 2009 3:43 PM | Report abuse

I'd really like to hear from the classroom teachers. I'm not willing to write Jay Matthews column off completely. That said, the brain and the body are connected and I can clearly see in myself and in my kids how exercise improves brain function. So let's be practical and not political about this.

Posted by: annenh | January 26, 2009 3:56 PM | Report abuse

Wait a minute, I thought the problem was soda...not recess. BAN SODA, BUT LET MY KIDS SIT STILL LONGER!!!

Posted by: byte1 | January 26, 2009 4:20 PM | Report abuse


This story made ! Check it out for all crazy headlines from our schools.

Posted by: sweetchuckd | January 26, 2009 8:10 PM | Report abuse

I am a teacher and those kids need recess. I teach pre-k and they don't get recess until 1:15. Throughout the day, I make sure to incorporate movement activities. I expect the kids to sit on the rug for about 20 minutes and then they have center time for about an hour. My school also has PE every other day for about 30 minutes (music the other days) and the PE teacher is wonderful with setting up games that require the kids to run run run and play (they have some structure, but, it is mostly playing.)

I taught at a private school where the kids were required to have a 15 minute outdoor (weather permitting) recess every morning. I thought that was a great break for the kids and for me, when they came back in, they were ready to learn.

Posted by: cookie75 | January 27, 2009 7:46 AM | Report abuse

Why is this even a question? How many adults would give up their coffee breaks?
Our frenzied, driven society would ask of children things they wouldn't ask of themselves.

I have taught in Elementary schools, raised a child, and have two young grandchildren. The wisest statement I believe I ever heard regarding young children is this: "Play is a child's work."

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | January 27, 2009 5:14 PM | Report abuse

Like Justsaying, I *HATED* gym class growing up but enjoyed being active on the playground. I'm horrible at most team sports (I have little coordination when it comes to manipulating a sports ball) but was decent at many of the playground games because I was a fast runner. There's no way that I would've wanted additional PE in lieu of recess!

Posted by: CrimsonWife | January 27, 2009 8:53 PM | Report abuse

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