Keeping Recess in Schools

Francesca Zavacky, Shannon L. Michael

Across the country students of all ages look forward to recess — the one or more breaks in the school day that allow them to get outside, spend time with friends, and be active. In a school with 300 students, 600 feet will be outside in the physical activity area or playground every day. If students are active for an average of 1,062 steps during recess (Erwin et al., 2012; Stellino, Sinclair, Partridge, & King, 2010; Tran, Clark, & Racette, 2013), that playground could see 318,600 or more steps each day from active students during recess. Over the course of a school year more than 57 million footsteps could move across the playground during daily recess. If students are active half of the time at recess, that is a conservative 29 million footsteps on the playground in a school year. If there is no recess, then there are zero active steps on the playground.

Recess is a period of time when students at all grade levels, kindergarten through 12th grade, are encouraged to be physically active and to engage with their peers in activities of their choice (Institute of Medicine [IOM], 2013). Recess is an important part of an active school (also known as a comprehensive school physical activity program; see Figure 1) by providing physical activity to students during the school day, in addition to physical education and classroom physical activity (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2013). Although these physical activity periods may not always be called recess in secondary schools, they serve the same purpose: to provide students with self-selected opportunities to engage in physical activity and to take a break from academic work during the school day (CDC and SHAPE America – Society of Health and Physical Educators, 2017).

Recess in the United States is not an expected part of the school day, especially in middle and high schools (SHAPE America & American Heart Association, 2016). High-stakes testing and state and federal requirements have prompted well-meaning school leaders to nudge recess off the schedule, replacing it with increased desk time, with little to no opportunities to engage in physical activity and socialization during the school day (IOM, 2013; Murray & Ramstetter, 2013). The purpose of this article is to explain the benefi ts of recess and to describe strategies to help schools keep recess in the school day and to create a culture of physical activity that uses recess as a catalyst for learning.
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