Jana Della Rosa’s 7-year-old son, Riley, never had any particular interest in her job as an Arkansas state representative. At least, not until she started pushing for students to get 40 minutes of recess each day. Then, she says, he transformed into a little lobbyist.
“All this time I haven’t had a cool job,” said Della Rosa, a Republican from the city of Rogers and a mother of two. “Now Mom has a cool job. He asks me at least weekly, ‘Have you got me more recess time yet?’”
Against a backdrop of teacher strikes aimed at systems that feel unresponsive to teachers and students, an effort to pass laws mandating recess for elementary-age children has picked up steam. Kids like Riley aren’t the only ones who think it’s a good idea: Study after study has shown that unstructured play time is crucial to development, not only benefiting physical health but also improving cognitive faculties not normally associated with play, including focus and recall.
Sensing a movement in the making—one driven by frustrated teachers, parents, and advocacy groups like the National PTA—politicians across the U.S. are introducing legislation that will square the school calendar with the available research and require schools to provide more playtime for young students.
The Research Says...
The benefits of a break in the school day extend beyond the value of the time outside.
A 2014 study of more than 200 elementary students, for example, found that physical activity improved students’ fitness and brain function, enhancing their accuracy and reaction time in cognitive tasks. Other studies have concluded that children who have unstructured time during the school day exhibit greater creativity and problem-solving skills, are less disruptive, and learn crucial social lessons like how to resolve disputes and form cooperative relationships.
Citing all of those factors, in 2017 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—which pointedly differentiates play from physical education, defining recess as “unstructured physical activity and play”—recommended at least 20 minutes of recess a day at the elementary school level.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also weighed in, describing recess in a 2012 policy statement as a “necessary break in the day for optimizing a child’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development” that should “not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.”
‘It Makes Me Want to Cry’
In the last two decades, as the federal No Child Left Behind Act ushered in a new focus on standardized testing—and schools responded to new security concerns and shrinking budgets—recess was increasingly seen as dispensable.
In a push to emphasize core subjects, 20 percent of school districts reduced recess time between 2001 and 2006, according to a study by the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University. And by 2006, the CDC had concluded that one-third of elementary schools did not offer daily recess for any grades.
“When you go back to the start of public schools and the drive to get kids educated 135 years ago, they all had recess,” said Robert Murray, a pediatrician who co-authored the American Academy of Pediatrics statement.
“In the ’90s, as we got more and more focused on the core courses and academic performance and test scores and all that, people began to look at recess as free time that could be taken away,” Murray said.
Researchers and teachers alike say kids have suffered for it. Deb McCarthy, a fifth-grade teacher at Lillian M. Jacobs Elementary School in Hull, Massachusetts, said she started seeing an increase in behavioral problems and anxiety about eight years ago. She blames it on the heightened expectations and loss of playtime at school. There are schools where kids have no recess at all, she said, because time once set aside for play is now dedicated to testing prep.
“It makes me want to cry,” McCarthy said, echoing the frustrations of many elementary teachers across the nation, who have argued that more ‘seat time’ was not developmentally appropriate. “I’ve been teaching for 22 years, and I’ve seen firsthand the change.”
States of Play
Now some states are trying to reverse course. At least five have a recess law on the books: Missouri, Florida, New Jersey, and Rhode Island mandate 20 minutes of recess daily for elementary students, while Arizona requires two recess periods without specifying a length.
Seven more states—Iowa, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, Connecticut, and Virginia—require between 20 and 30 minutes of daily physical activity for elementary schools, leaving it up to schools how to allocate the time. Recently, legislators in Connecticut proposed a bill to increase that state’s time commitment to 50 minutes.
Much of the legislation of the last few years has been initiated at the urging of parents and teachers. Florida’s law, first proposed in 2016, passed in 2017 after “recess moms” across the state organized on Facebook and lobbied lawmakers. The group now helps parents in other states mount their own fights for free play.
A bill that would have required 20 minutes of recess in Massachusetts failed last year, but McCarthy, a member of the Massachusetts Teachers Association’s government relations committee, is hopeful it will pass this year. “We came really close the last time, but then they decided to put it to a study,” she said. “I don’t know what there really is to study, in all honesty.”
Some educators have raised concerns that recess laws add another mandate to a school day that’s already jam-packed with requirements. Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union and a onetime fifth-grade teacher, said Florida’s recess requirement was “a good thing, but they forgot to figure out where it’s going to fit.”
Others have decided to rethink recess at the school or district level. A program called LiiNK—Let’s Inspire Innovation ’N Kids—in several Texas school districts sends kids outside for four 15-minute recess periods daily.
Debbie Rhea, a professor and associate dean at Texas Christian University, launched the initiative after seeing a similar practice in Finland. It reminded her of her own elementary school years.
“We have forgotten what childhood should be,” said Rhea, who was a physical education teacher before going into academia. “And if we remember back to before testing—which would be back in the ’60s, ’70s, early ’80s—if we remember back to that, children were allowed to be children.”
LiiNK was a big change for the Eagle Mountain Saginaw Independent School District, where schools saw their recess time quadruple after implementing the program four years ago.
“We’ve seen some amazing changes in our students,” said district LiiNK coordinator Candice Williams-Martin. “Their creative writing has improved. Their fine motor skills have improved, their [body mass index] has improved. Attention in the classroom has improved.”
The trend of embracing recess encourages researchers like Murray, who is hopeful that schools will continue giving kids back that critical free time. “I think a lot of schools are starting to say, ‘Gee, if our purpose is to try to help students learn, this turns out to be a benefit, not a detriment,’” Murray said.
Betty Warren, a kindergarten teacher at Banyan Elementary in Broward County, Florida, said she always carves out time for her students to unwind. Even when she taught upper grades, she had her math club students hula hoop or bounce balls while doing times tables.
“It’s just hard for them to sit for long periods of time, so taking the breaks is very helpful. They’re more focused and ready to settle down and listen and learn,” she said. “Plus, it makes school fun. I’m a big believer that it’s got to be fun.”
Back in Arkansas, Della Rosa jokes that she feels like she’s “finally able to fulfill that campaign promise I made when I was in fifth grade and running for class president: more recess for everybody.”