Published Online: April 14, 2015
Withholding Recess as a Punishment Declines
As schools move to ban restrictions on playtime, some teachers resist losing discretion over discipline
By Evie Blad
It’s not uncommon for elementary school teachers to take away recess time to discipline students. Withholding cherished playtime clearly communicates to children that their misbehavior is unacceptable, they argue.
But more and more, schools are doing away with withholding recess for disciplinary reasons, pointing to research findings that unstructured play and exercise benefit students both inside and outside the classroom.
“That physical activity and unstructured play, those things are not luxuries for kids,” said Sara Zimmerman, the technical-assistance director of the Oakland, Calif.-based Safe Routes to School National Partnership, which advocates increased physical activity for students. “That’s a key part of how kids learn and how they grow.”
Schools around the country have implemented policies that limit or eliminate teachers’ ability to take away recess time, their efforts bolstered by district policies and state laws that place renewed emphasis on physical activity and by increased public involvement in the creation of district wellness policies.
In Minnesota, for example, lawmakers are considering a bill that would prohibit schools from withholding recess time as a form of punishment. A separate bill in that state would require schools to set clear policies on how much recess time they provide to students and to publish those policies online.
At least 11 states have similar prohibitions, according to the Reston, Va.-based National Association for Sport and Physical Education.
In a 2013 analysis of wellness policies in more than 600 school districts around the country, researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago found that 68 percent of elementary schools had no policy in place prohibiting the use of withholding of physical activity as a form of discipline during the 2010-11 school year. That’s a decline from 79 percent in 2006-07.
Supporters of those changes say it’s counterproductive to punish defiant or overly active children by taking away the “time to get their wiggles out,” and that recess is often withheld for unrelated behaviors, like incomplete homework.
Free time also supports students’ cognitive functioning by giving them a “reset button” for their brain, researchers have found.
Kaden Livingston, 8, plays during recess at Patterson International Elementary School in Lakewood, Colo., last week. Research shows children are more engaged in the classroom when they have a break for playtime.
And districts that have made the policy switch say recess gives children a chance to explore social and emotional concepts that are increasingly emphasized in the classroom—like self-awareness and respect for others.
“A lot of times the kids who lose physical activity are the ones who need it most,” said Emily O’Winter, the wellness coordinator for Jefferson County schools in Colorado. “It can have a snowball effect.”
The 85,000-student district leaves it up to its schools to decide if recess can be withheld, Ms. O’Winter said. Many follow a model school wellness policy promoted by the district that recommends not allowing such discipline, she said.
The push for change gained momentum nationally in 2012, when the American Academy of Pediatrics released a position paper saying recess “should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.”
“A growing trend toward reallocating time in school to accentuate the more academic subjects has put this important facet of a child’s school day at risk,” that paper said.
“Recess serves as a necessary break from the rigors of concentrated, academic challenges in the classroom,” the paper continued. “But equally important is the fact that safe and well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it. Recess is unique from, and a complement to, physical education—not a substitute for it.”
After reviewing existing research, the American Academy of Pediatrics found that many schools had lessened recess time to comply with increased academic demands, and that children attending high-poverty and urban schools are less likely than their peers in middle- and upper-income schools to receive adequate playtime.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all elementary school students get at least 20 minutes of recess time each day.
Child-health advocates fear schools have used the implementation of new, more rigorous learning expectations, such as the Common Core State Standards, as justification for reducing the amount of time for physical activity students have during the school day.
“We have the science that shows the importance of moving throughout the day and the impact that can have on focus, concentration, and academic performance, but, increasingly, we’re having kids sit for long stretches of the day,” said Laurie Whitsel, the director of policy research at the American Heart Association.
That organization and others promote research that shows the academic and emotional benefits of recess, alongside data about child obesity and fitness.
When schools limit children’s time for play, “it’s deleterious for their health, and it’s also bad for their academic performance,” Ms. Whitsel said.
“They’re kind of shooting themselves in the foot.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics position paper highlights research that shows young students have improved literacy scores and better cognitive functioning when they get breaks for physical activity.
Researchers have also found school climate and social-emotional benefits.
Researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of Denver found in a 2014 study that 6-year-olds who spent more time in unstructured play showed more signs of strong executive functioning and decision-making skills. Those skills are supportive of strong social relationships, which researchers have linked to academic success throughout a student’s school career.
Champions of child exercise expect more schools to consider revising their policies related to physical activity, including recess, as they upgrade school wellness plans to comply with the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
Since 2004, all schools that participate in the National School Lunch program have been required to have wellness plans that outline how they handle student nutrition and physical education.
That requirement was updated under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to add more chances for public participation and transparency in crafting and updating wellness plans. A proposed rule, drafted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to comply with the act, is expected to be finalized soon.
Model school wellness policies drafted by several advocacy organizations include prohibitions on withholding physical activity for disciplinary reasons. Supporters hope that increased input from parents will lead schools to adopt that recommendation.
Such input has already influenced many communities.
In New Haven, Conn., for example, district leaders updated their policies to provide a minimum amount of required recess time and a rule against using recess for discipline after parents spoke up.
But, even as parents have pushed for such changes, some teachers have resisted them.
Eliminating restrictions on recess come as many schools are implementing other changes to their discipline policies to reduce the use of suspensions and other forms of exclusionary discipline.
When parents in Berkeley, Calif., pushed for a policy to eliminate withholding recess last year, teachers pushed back.
There are times when taking away recess time “is the logical and natural response to behavior,” Cathy Campbell, the president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, told the school board at a November meeting.
“We don’t want it to be impossible for teachers to use this tool,” she said, “because there are times when it is absolutely the right tool.”
The board eventually passed a policy that maintains the ability of teachers to restrict recess time for a maximum of 10 minutes per day after first considering other disciplinary alternatives and providing a verbal warning.
Ms. O’Winter of the Jefferson County district said she understands that some schools may be reluctant to take a discipline option off the table.
But “there’s a growing understanding that it’s damaging to withhold physical activity from children, for disciplinary reasons or for makeup work,” she said.
After the USDA finalizes its new regulations for school wellness plans, she hopes to update Jefferson County’s plan, possibly considering a ban on withholding recess in the process.
“I see it,” she said, “as an opportunity for a big change.”
Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.