When Should We Take Away Student Recess?

By Tony Kline, Ph.D. 

simple truth:

Recess should be a daily part of learning for children, not a bargaining tool for teachers.

research tells us:

The research is clear.  Yet the issue of recess is muddy.  

I understand.  As teachers, we have an incredible amount of pressure each and every day. And it seems like this pressure comes from many directions. From our students and their families, from our principal, and the community at large, teachers are held to a high standard.

And it's that pressure that may make us too willing to do away with recess if our students don't meet our expectations.  "Do you want me to take away your recess" is a question I often hear in schools.  A recent Gallup poll indicated that 77% of principals shared that their schools take away children's recess for punishment.  From late homework to inappropriate behavior, recess is often seen less as a valued part of a child's learning and more like a bargaining chip to hold over students' heads.

Shortening or removing a child's recess is ironic for different reasons. Research shows that recess provides proven academic, social, emotional and physical benefits. Yet, we take it away thinking that this will magically solve some unwanted behavior. In fact, students may act out more when they're not involved in well-organized recess. Some principals tell their teachers that recess is optional so that students can use this time for more academic work. Yet, we know that missing recess does not promote positive impacts on students' academic achievement. The irony is that while taking away recess seems like a short-term fix to these academic and social problems, they may in fact only make them worse.  

And who loses?  It's the students, their families, our schools, and the communities at large.  The same stakeholders who we feel add the most stress.  So back to the title of this article, when should we take away a student's recess?

The answer and research is clear. Let students get muddy at recess.

try this:

  • Instead of taking away recess, identify the student issue at hand. Then determine a logical or natural consequence.  For useful examples, see this Responsive Classroom resource.

  • When working with students showing behavior challenges, consider teaching specific self-management skills.  Here's a training guide designed by Vanderbilt University that provides practical and effective self-management strategies for children.

  • Ensure that staff is specifically trained how to supervise recess effectively. Strive to have these adults interact with the students throughout the playground, rather than with other adults in one centralized location .

  • Imagine if you were asked to shadow a student all day, sitting as long as they sit.  Wouldn't an outside break be of great benefit for you, even as an adult? Let's provide this same benefit to children.

review & share this:

What's your thoughts and experiences regarding recess?  Leave your comments below.

For additional reading and referenced research, click here.