Recess—Something So Loved, Only Bureaucrats Could Kill It

James V. Shuls Director of Education Policy, Show-Me Institute
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I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t like recess. As a former elementary school teacher myself, I can tell you that recess is a special time. Kids can run, play, talk with their friends, and just be kids; and teachers can have a few uninterrupted minutes to prepare for the next lesson or take a much-needed bathroom break (When else do they have time?).

Even the research literature is pretty positive about the benefits of recess. For starters, recess increases physical activity, which we know has many positive effects on a child’s health and well-being. Yet, recess is more than simply physical activity. It is a time of unstructured play, which helps children develop socially and emotionally. Moreover, numerous studies have found students are more on-task in the classroom when they have had recess.

With so much love for recess, it is puzzling that Rhode Island lawmakers recently felt compelled to pass legislation requiring 20 minutes of recess a day. Where had recess gone?

In fairness, recess hasn’t completely been eradicated from schools. In fact, almost all elementary students in public schools have at least one recess a day. The minutes spent at recess, however, seem to be shrinking—thanks in large part to government policies. In an effort to improve public schools, lawmakers saddle them with rules and regulations.

First, states severely micromanage the calendar of schools. Some states stipulate the start and end dates and the required number of minutes in the school year (in Virginia, the law regulating the starting and ending dates even has an informal name—“The King’s Dominion Law”—after the mega-amusement park that fights to keep kids out of school until after Labor Day). With these regulations in mind, most school funding systems ensure that schools will not go above and beyond the minimum requirements, because they will not get additional dollars to support their efforts. In effect, the state has defined the length of the school year down to the minute.

Second, government agencies have placed an inordinate amount of pressure on schools and students to perform in tested subject areas. Following the infamous A Nation at Risk report of 1983, states began developing accountability systems based on academic learning standards, and schools were assessed via standardized tests. The accountability movement leapt to the national stage with No Child Left Behind in 2001. Tests give us valuable information, but they simply cannot capture everything we care about in education. Moreover, we don’t (and wouldn’t want to) test students in every subject. As a result, things like art, music, and recess become “less important” in accountability systems.

With a fixed amount of time in the school year and increased pressures to perform on standardized tests, many school administrators have been motivated to shift instructional time to tested subjects, such as math and English language arts, and reduce minutes for recess.

Fortunately, there is a better way. Rather than build a system of rules and compliance, where we must regulate everything—including recess—we could build a public education system of choice. A system that provides administrators with the power to lead their schools and offers parents the ability to choose would be much more conducive to good decision-making. Just take a look at recess: the average third-grade student in a private school spends roughly 30 more minutes a week at recess than their public school counterparts.

Fewer regulations, more choice, more recess—now that’s sound policy.

James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri – St. Louis and a fellow at the Show-Me Institute.