Why recess at school isn’t a privilege

When a group of kids talk too loudly in the hallway at school, one teacher rushes out and in a bold act, punishes the entire group by taking away 10 minutes of recess. You might say to me: “So what?” However, 10 minutes is a lot of time to fourth grader when you only get 30 minutes of outdoor time with your friends.

What is good behavior in school? Obedience? Compliance? Competence? No talking in the hallway after singing practice? Is that how schools generate exceptional learning?

I think taking away recess is wrong.

Recess isn’t a privilege. It’s essential and shouldn’t be used to instill fear. Like healthy food and fresh air, the unabashed ability to run and play is an important part of a child’s day at school. Our schoolteachers should figure out an alternative to docking recess like a writing assignment, chores, or some kind of “community” service.

“My favorite part of school is recess,” said James. His friends agree. Kids release pent up energy, recharge, relax, and renew. They learn teamwork, they argue, tease, and play some more. And then they all line up to march back to their classrooms to sit for a few more hours.

I think kids sit too much.

The problem with school is that administrators and teachers often put the emphasis on the wrong things. Obedience and competence is praised and rewarded. Questioning and dreaming? Not so much. Elementary school students are afraid of getting a bad score on a standardized test. And so the third, fourth, and fifth graders spend their days and nights worrying about getting the answers right instead of making something fun, exciting, and meaningful like researching and writing a book about NHL hockey teams. Or building a fort.

I often wonder: What is school for?

I’d like to think the goal of school is to raise the standard for rational thought, critical thinking, skeptical investigation and useful decision making. I’d also like to think that school will support my values and help my child to appreciate culture and embrace its differences; encourage him to pick up a book and read just for fun, not because he gets an award); encourage him to stand out and make his own decisions, and not succumb to peer pressure. and help him understand and respect differences in people and belief systems.

I see moments of this shiny goal, especially in Art and Music (where the kids really don’t spend enough time exploring), but not consistently. Sometimes the teacher gets it wrong. One time James came home in tears because he knew the English flag was not the Union Jack but the cross. His teacher told him he was wrong and not to argue and move on. Instead, James couldn’t let it go. He went to the computer and got proof. He presented it the next day. The teacher apologized (to her credit). James learned the flags of nearly every country in the world that have soccer teams. Just for fun, he makes books about countries. He studies the culture, language, and of course any kind of statistic about World Cup soccer, soccer leagues, soccer players, and more.

I’m worried. What happens when my son reaches middle school and high school? Will he still maintain his creative thinking? Or will studying for SATs and Regents exams kill it? What are those tests for? To get into a “good” college, that will land him a “good” job where the boss tells him exactly what to do? I think those days are gone, don’t you?

What if we made school different?

What if we made school a place where learning becomes a choice? What if we made school a place that helps kids become bold, creative, and innovative? If the future lies with our kids, what are we doing as parents to help our kids make our society stronger? I think we need more passion and creativity in this world, and I think school can help.

I don’t have all the answers, but I know I’m not alone in asking these questions.

I’ve been reading a 30,000 word manifesto by Seth Godin. It’s called “Stop Stealing Dreams” and it’s free to download, read, and share. It’s provocative because it makes me question the status quo.

If you take the time to read it, let me know what you think. Send me an email, post a comment on my blog or Facebook.

You don’t have to be a parent to care because school belongs to everyone.

P.S. Can you tell what’s happening in this picture?


  1. Dola

    I understand that teachers have their work cut out for them and are working under the pressure of meeting standards (my undergraduate major included lifespan development, psychology and early childhood education). I would love for my 2nd grader to have a GREAT relationship with her teacher and I actively encourage this. My daughter (and I am not just saying this) is very bright (reading well above grade level). She enjoys math for fun, and strives to please her teachers. Yet, she has been docked recess because I forgot to sign her weekend reading log (it was the first week, I have four year old triplets, and my husband works long weekend hours). She most recently was docked recess to catch up on school work because she missed two days of school (all my children were vomiting violently with an awful stomach bug). I simply disagree with the docking of recess. Recess is an integral part of the day. It allows for children to move, stretch, recharge, refresh, get exercise and learn valuable socialization skills. I also strongly disagree with using reading as a punishment. My daughter is an avid reader and was forced to stay inside to read, rather than play with her friends, despite the fact that she had read two and three times the minimum requirement daily throughout the week. And, how difficult would it have been to give her work to make up at home for her sick time? School systems tout the benefits of positive behavioral supports. I also understand classroom management requires structure. Structure is different from “rules”. Structure is adaptive and meets the needs of the student. It encourages critical thinking, creativity and problem solving in a predictable and supportive environment. It arms children with skills to approach a variety of situations while recognizing individual differences. It teaches tolerance and patience. Structure teaches concepts and rewards ideas. Parents/teachers collaborate. The goals are the focus, even if the road to get to the goals is different for each child. I personally believe that rigid adherence to a set of rules that ignore the basis for those rules (the goal) and fail to account for individual differences is counterproductive. A system that punishes good students is flawed. I also believe that teachers should take the time to learn about their students. I think a month is a reasonable amount of time to have accomplished this. I want my daughter to have a positive experience and for her thirst for learning to be fueled, not extinguished. I know teaching is not an easy endeavor, and am willing to give the teacher the benefit of the doubt. But, as with any profession, there are good teachers and not so good ones. And while teachers have our children for a year…we have them for a lifetime. As parents, the stakes are much higher. I so don’t want to be “that parent” that the teacher dreads. But I also have to weigh the consequences of doing/saying nothing. No matter what happens, my 2nd grader is learning some tough, but real lessons.

  2. Beth Kimberly

    Great post! Recess should be a right. There are so many alternatives to taking away recess as punishment. A break from the classroom to run, play and socialize is necessary for kids. Studies show that recess helps kids focus in the classroom and that play is invaluable to kids’ development.

    I think you’ll really like Jill Vialet (Playworks CEO/Founder)’s TEDxABQ talk called “What Play Can Teach Us” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STYU-iz8bUQ

  3. Tricia

    If I wanted to sabotage a society, I’d start with itschildren. I’d make sure they never find their God-appointed place in the world. This would serve many purposes. It would ensure that they never use their unique genius appropriately to make their world a better place. It would ensure that the people that are best at something never arrive at the workplace to do it. It would ensure that frustrated, unfulfilled people would fill the cities and worry, fight, and abuse themselves trying to find what’s missing from their lives and dull the pain of the empty place in them. I’d make sure they lose their health as early in life as possible. I’d limit their physical activity to absolutely no more than an hour a day. I’d make them sit in one place for hours on end while they scream on the inside. I’d give them canned tasteless food whenever possible, served overcooked in combinations they don’t like, and put in as much hydrogenated fat as possible, and then give them 7 minutes to gulp it down. I’d make sure they were never free to drink and hydrate and eat and nourish when their bodies needed it, so they would forget to listen to their bodies – this would cause obesity, disease, and probably early death. I’d talk down to them and punish them en masse , and make sure they cry at least once a week from frustration. They would never have an opportunity to make any decisions about what they do, so they learn to forget to listen to the voice of inspiration, and become docile and easily manipulated. Within 30 years I would have a society of people that can’t think for themselves, don’t dream, don’t hope, don’t care. If I wanted to sabotage a society, I’d send them to school.

    PS, No, I don’t really want to sabotage a society and yes, I sent my children to school. Nobody’s perfect.

  4. allison dix

    I agree, in this time of childhood obestiy why is recess being taken away? Kids ned a break. I also object to recess being right after lunch. Maybe they should have 2 breaks dirung the day_less convienent for the teachers I suppose. Dont get me wrong, I think the teachers are amazing, but stepping back and “looking outside the box” may reveal some great ideas.
    I remember Maddy’s first grade teacher telling David and me at conference that she can be impulsive. Her example was that Maddy went ahead and assembled & colored the paper puritan ahaed of everyone else and chose her own colors !!! I told her we encourage that at home.
    As maddy contemplates becoming a teacher I have so many mixed emotions. Noble profession, no money, potential to be important to someone along the way….
    talk to you soon
    PS: I missed madmen this week. I worked the weekend and just couldnt make it

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