Elementary School Recess Disappearing, Transforming

COMMENTARY | Ask elementary school students to name their favorite part of the school day. Chances are – like most young children – they’ll answer with “recess.” But tomorrow’s students may have a different answer. Even now, the New York Times states that elementary school recess is disappearing in some schools. Or, at least, it’s transforming into something new.

The Times describes a number of New York City elementary schools in which the typical recess – composing of active, outdoor play – is transforming into additional indoor learning time. Whether labeled “enrichment activities” or “lunch clubs,” the idea is that students choose a personal area of interest to divulge their time and efforts.

Ironically, this comes after a Gallup poll revealed last year that school principals are overwhelmingly in favor of elementary school recess. The National Association for Elementary School Principals explains that the poll indicated nearly all administrators believe recess greatly helps with student academic performance and social well-being. A majority also believe students are more attentive and focused after recess.

However, though the Gallup poll was geared toward playground-style, outdoor recess, the same benefits could also be said of the new, transformed recess clubs.

The Times article highlighted elementary school students deeply engaged in computer classes, book clubs, learning new musical instruments, engineering practice, knitting, learning new languages and painting murals. Alternatively, if students are fidgety and need time and space to run, they are sent to the school playground.

As an art teacher, I’ve had numerous students ask to come to the art room instead of going to their recess. As a monitor on the playground, I’ve seen numerous students reading books, singing, writing, drawing or other non-recess activities, while others play on the equipment. This isn’t a bad thing. I applaud the New York schools that have let traditional recess disappear for three reasons:

1. According to the Gallup Poll, traditional recess is the single largest source of discipline problems in elementary schools. However, when students are engaged in an activity they’re interested in – with small groups of like-minded students – behavior dramatically improves.

2. Transforming free time into learning time means students are being exposed to new skills, trades and arts that they normally wouldn’t and broadening their horizons.

3. It’s time to wake up and realize that not all young kids like running around and climbing on equipment. While some students need that release of energy, others would prefer to build models, learn ASL, sing, etc. Let’s give them that chance.

Ultimately, recess boils down to a break in the day, a release from the monotony of sitting in a classroom and a chance to expel unused energy. However, that traditional definition of recess as climbing on an outdoor playground is disappearing, and transforming into something more worldly and educational. And isn’t that what school is all about?

What do you think? Are you a fan of traditional recess or are you in favor of specialized recess clubs?

Becca Swanson is a licensed visual arts teacher with a B.A. in Art Education. She has taught students from pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade.

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