What Children Learn When They Are Held in from Recess. Every day.

Why don’t we have recess?” my students would often ask me during my six-year stint as a Chicago Public Schools teacher.

Why don’t we have recess?” my own children would often ask me during my five-year stint as a Chicago Public School parent.

Well, like any teacher unable to answer a question, I asked the askers, “Why do you think we don’t have recess?” The “answers” were usually something the students had overheard or inferred from the structure of school. But on closer inspection, the “answers” answer something else: What you learn when you don’t have recess.

We have to get better test scores so there isn’t time,” is really a student’s attempt to understand what adults value and prioritize. There are vast unstated messages indicated by that statement. Messages that children understand and take to heart. In educational parlance, this is called the “hidden curriculum”—what you learn by the actions or nonactions of schooling beyond the official textbook content. So, while a student might have heard that there is no recess to raise test scores, what a child learns is that I’m too stupid to waste time having fun. (Just like the student held in from recess for missing homework or a bad test score.) Physical activity doesn’t count for anything anyways. Playing with friends and enjoying life is not as important as getting the right answer.

Recess costs money.” What a child learns: I’m not worth it.

Recess causes too many problems. It is too rough.” What a child learns: I’m not like those other people who get recess. I don’t deserve it. I am bad.

Recess is too hard to supervise.” What a child learns: I have to be controlled at all times. I must sit in my seats. I must stay in my place. The only possible escape is in my mind. There is no escape.

The neighborhood is too dangerous.”What a child learns: It is not safe to play outside. I could get shot. There is no way to make it safe. Our teachers are scared. I have to walk home anyways.

Sitting at the dinner table, my daughter explained to me that she didn’t have recess because “they didn’t want us to get hurt, or for us to go away, or for us to get shot.” But, “If you had the nice teachers, they took you to recess. You came back from lunch then you went out to the blacktop. But only if your class was really good. We ran around or talked to our friends.”

I asked her why did the nice teachers take you outside if it is dangerous?

She explained, “Because going outside is good for your brain and they need exercise so they will be quiet in class.”

That is, she resolved the contradiction of purported reasons and subversive practices by figuring that those subversive practices reinforce a different purported reason. This is typical of so many educational practices these days. Rather than acknowledge an actual conflict of values, everyone is urged to take a “both/and” approach. Which really means, you can have your ideas, so long as they support the approved ones.

Want an afterschool program to be funded? Prove that it raises test scores. Want to try a creative project? Prove that it is “research based.” Want to take a field trip? Explain how it will support district learning goals.

There was a time when recess was actually considered a space of learning. It was thought that during recess personality and social ties could be shown and developed in a more natural, unprogrammed setting, under a more gentle guidance. Recess existed so that kids could be a kid under a kind and watchful eye.[1] Some people even dreamed that school could help us imagine a better world, question the way things are done, become more creative, be more self-sufficient, develop social connections, value each person, find our own meaning, choose our own purpose, and make our own judgment. In fact, I am currently researching what students who had recess remember of it—how it affected who they are; what does a child learn at recess? Of course, I am finding that recess hardly fulfilled these dreams, but it can be seen as an expression of them, an outgrowth of a belief that to have democracy one has to practice it.

But we live in quite a different time. Our public schools still cower in the shadow of Sputnik, and the subsequent National Defense Education Act. Education is still linked to competition and competition is still linked to national defense. And even though the Cold War is over, that doesn’t stop politicians from demanding tougher standards and higher test scores—sometimes in the name of competition and sometimes in the name of equality—but always in the form of something that can be “measured.” In fact, if it can’t be measured, it isn’t really learning. And things like getting along with others and choosing your own activities and collectively organizing games and wandering and staring and running and sliding and swinging are just . . . not measurable. And so, not worth anything, really.

(Unless, as my daughter reasonably surmised, they help you sit still the rest of the day. I mean, if it increases efficiency, that is ok.)

Despite the heavy burden of saving the country with an army of children wielding number-two pencils, some teachers, parents, students, and even principals took matters into their own hands. Some teachers took their students out for recess anyway. And some principals looked the other way. Some students feigned illnesses, faked coughs, and gagged themselves.

Some parents pulled their children out to go on vacation. And one headmaster in Georgia, in an admirable display of humility, recently canceled school due to great weather.

But this list of subversions is not meant to indicate that all is well. Rather, instead we can see them as a sort of civil disobedience in the face of schooling that takes schooling too seriously.

In order to implement a more systemic solution, when negotiating the contract in 2012 for the longer school day, the teachers’ union and parents’ groups pressured Chicago Public Schools to include recess and arts classes within the extra time students are now at school. There have even been subsequent policies made stating that a student should not be kept in from recess for punishment. Thus, elementary school students in Chicago Public Schools currently have recess as a matter of policy. Of course, as Jackson Potter at the Chicago Teachers Union explained, that doesn’t solve the issue of having adequate playground space or equipment, especially on days when students must remain indoors. And adequate staffing is an issue. Still, there are probably few who would argue it isn’t good that children in Chicago now get a recess.

Not that the war is over. The ideological battles remain. After No Child Left Behind was implemented, many schools across the nation cut recess time, along with art, physical education, social studies, and science, in order to add time to what was measured: math and reading. Now, new national math and reading standards will soon usher in the next round of tests. Many states are requiring teacher pay to be linked to student scores. As always, tough decisions will have to be made with limited time and resources.

Just imagine what a child could learn if she didn’t have recess.


[1] In 1862, the District Schools of Chicago stated under the heading of Morals and Manners in the Graded Course of Instruction, “Love to parents and others, friendship, kindness, gentleness, obedience, honesty, truthfulness, generosity, self-denial, neatness, diligence, etc., are cultivated in children, not so much by direct exhortation and formal precept, as by resorting to expedients that will call these affections and qualities into active exercise. Lead a child to do a kind act, and you will increase his kindness of heart; and this is the best of all lessons on kindness. . . .There is no time when the watchfulness of the teacher is more necessary than during the recesses and other hours of relaxation at school. This is the time when little differences are most likely to spring up, and bad passions to gain the ascendancy. No parent’s eye is upon the children, and yet they should constantly feel that some kind guardian is near—not to check their cheerful sports, but to encourage every kind and noble act, and to rebuke every departure from the path of virtue and honor.” (G. Willis, W. H. Schubert, et al. The American Curriculum: A documentary history, Greenwood Press (Westwood), 1993, p. 59-60)