Removal Of Recess Should Not Be Used As A Form Of Punishment In School

by Laura Hanby Hudgens
A colorful hopscotch grid drawn on a school playground
RuthChoi / Shutterstock

I am a high school teacher, and if there is one thing I know about education it is that modern education is steeped in research and data. Teachers collect and examine data in formative assessments (checking to see if students are learning as we go) and summative assessments (checking to see if student learning is complete).

We look at data from last year’s test scores and this year’s test scores. We look at what the research says about effective and ineffective teaching methods. We are even expected to collect and use data to determine and communicate how we can improve professionally. Research-based and data-driven are big, big buzzwords in education. We are reminded time and again that our instruction must be research-based and data-driven.

Except when it isn’t.

When it comes to recess and the importance of play and physical activity, too many schools ignore the current research. Instead of treating recess as an important — in fact, crucial — part of a student’s day, some schools still act as if recess is a privilege bestowed on well-behaved, compliant students. They use recess as a bargaining tool and withhold it as a form of punishment.

As parents, we tend to accept this. After all, most of us remember losing a recess now and then due to too much talking or an incomplete assignment. I remember staying in Mr. Lovelady’s fourth-grade class during more than a few recesses, writing, “I will not talk in class,” until my hand ached. I hated to miss recess, but I survived it.

So why should it bother me if my son or other kids lose recess from time to time? The difference is that we had three recesses. In total, we had over an hour every day to play, run, talk, and be with our friends. Many kids today are lucky to get 20 minutes.

The research is clear. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, recess plays a vital role in child development, benefitting children emotionally, socially, physically, and academically. The AAP “believes that recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.” In other words, kids need recess, and recess should not be taken away from children to punish them for misbehavior or as punishment for not completing or incorrectly completing with their work.

Again, this cannot be stressed enough. Recess is not a privilege. It is not a reward. Children should not have to earn recess, and they should not miss recess as a punishment. Because recess is such a vital part of students’ development, taking it away from children makes as much sense as taking away math, reading, or spelling. It does not help them to become better students or better people. So why are so many schools still using this form of punishment?

Perhaps it’s because it seems like a simple solution to unwanted behavior. The problem is that punishment is often less effective in correcting behavior than other forms of discipline. In the case of recess, this punishment is less effective because kids need recess in order to decompress, socialize, and get the wiggles out so that they can focus and behave better in class.

Another possible reason schools take away recess is that teachers are operating with limited time and options. Creative discipline can take time away from instruction and attention away from other students.

So how do teachers change or improve student behavior without taking away recess? Many teachers feel as though their hands are tied. What are the alternatives to taking away recess?

There are no simple solutions, but one key is a change in policy at both the federal and state level. Departments of education must mandate more recess time for students if we are to believe that their goal is to serve the best interests of our children.

Administrators must work with teachers to come up with alternative forms of discipline and ways to improve student behavior, doing whatever is within their power to provide adequate time for play and recreation.

Schools must also keep the lines of communication with parents open. When parents know what teachers expect and how their children might be falling short of these expectations, they can help by taking action at home. It’s unlikely that taking a child’s recess away will result in a positive change in behavior. Taking way their television or electronics might.

Childhood is fleeting, and the amount of time children have to play during their day has decreased dramatically in recent years. Current trends in education have forced many schools to severely limit, or in some cases, eliminate recess. This isn’t right, and it isn’t in the best interest of children. It might take years to restore recess to its rightful place in the curriculum, but the first step toward restoring recess is to acknowledge that it is not a privilege reserved only for the well behaved.