My Kid's School Takes Away Recess As Punishment, And I'm Pissed

by Alicia Stein
Originally Published: 
Young boy leaned on a bench, supporting his head with his right arm.
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It happened again today at my younger son’s elementary school. A couple of kids had been playing with Pokémon cards during lunch, which is apparently against the rules (honestly, this rule makes no sense to me, but that’s another topic in and of itself). As a result, the entire first grade had to “sit out” from recess that day.

What did that mean? It meant that 50 little 6-year-old kids – who had been stuck inside doing an ungodly amount of academic work for the past few hours – had to step outside to their beloved playground, and sit their butts down on the concrete, doing nothing until recess was over.

Today, my son said, smiling ear to ear, that it was only half of recess that was taken away. He said this as if he’d been given a gift – as if recess is something that he has to earn, not something that is as important to his day as art, reading, gym, or literally anything else.

Nope. Recess has been set up as a privilege the kids earn – a privilege that can be taken away by even the smallest infraction, like passing around freaking Pokémon cards at lunch.

And don’t even get me started about the fact that, according to my son, only about 5 kids were doing this, and yet the entire grade lost their recess.

A couple of days before all this bullshit, my middle schooler came home with a similar story. He takes all his core academic classes with the same group of kids, and a handful of those kids have been talking too much in class and acting rowdy. The entire class gets “points” after each class, and points are deducted from the whole class if only a few kids act out. After three infractions, the whole class gets “lunch detention.”

Well, that’s exactly what happened the other day. And nope, “lunch detention” doesn’t mean they can’t eat lunch (schools could not get away with that kind of punishment). It means that they lose the last 20 minutes of lunch, when they are allowed to go outside and have recess.

There it is again: If you are bad, we’ll take away recess.

I mean, I get why they do it. It’s the one activity in the day – besides lunch, gym, or another favorite subject – that kids are actually looking forward to. It isn’t a required academic subject. And it can be quite effective at getting kids to stop doing whatever it was they were doing, at least in the immediate aftermath.

However, after watching both of my kids receive this punishment this week – and seeing how they have reacted – I am here to say that taking away recess is not only a terrible punishment, causing more harm than it eliminates, but it is exactly the wrong message we should be sending our kids.

Sure, in some cases, taking away recess eliminates the specific behavior you are seeking to suppress. My son tells me that those unruly kids in his middle school class were pretty dang quiet the day after lunch detention. But a few days later? Well, they began acting out again – quieter than before, but noticeable enough that the teacher had to say something.

Taking away recess can put a Band-Aid on the problem, and maybe get kids to stop what it was that they were doing for a short period of time, but it doesn’t address any underlining behavioral issues kids are having.

I don’t know what the particular kids who were acting out at my kids’ school may have been dealing with. But I do know that the majority of kids who misbehave in school are usually struggling with something like ADHD, anxiety, depression, a learning disability, or an autism spectrum disorder. Or maybe they are just having a bad few months at home — or don’t get along with a particular teacher or student, and are feeling stressed about that.

Some of these kids are diagnosed; some aren’t. Some of them are getting counseling; others slip through the cracks.

But do you know what has been shown to help all kids who are having issues at school – whether developmental, emotional, or otherwise?


Just ask the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) – you know, the organization your kids’ pediatrician belongs to, that keeps up with current research about what makes our kids healthiest, in body and mind. Here’s what they had to say about recess in a statement from 2013:

“Recess is a necessary break in the day for optimizing a child’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development,” writes the AAP. “In essence, recess should be considered a child’s personal time, and it should not be withheld for academic or punitive reasons.”

Hmmm… I guess my kids’ schools didn’t get the memo?

Not only does study after flipping study say that recess is actually NECESSARY if you want well-behaved kids, but the AAP says specifically that it is not something that should be withheld.

Kids act worse without recess, and yet that’s the very thing you are taking away. Where’s the logic here?

But besides all that, I am disturbed about the message this is sending our kids.

Recess is the one part of the day when kids get to let loose, move their bodies freely, interact with their friends, get some fresh air, and be creative. It’s the ultimate form of self-care for kiddos, and we know that schools have been cutting it left and right in favor of more academic classwork.

As for my own kids’ schools, my husband and I have not decided yet whether to take immediate action. If the punishment happens again, I will be on the phone with the administration that day airing my grievances. If it appears to be a one- or two-time occurrence, I will likely wait until parent-teacher conferences to bring it up. Either way, I’m not going to let it slide.

I don’t claim to have all the answers in terms of discipline in school. I have seen my kids’ schools handle certain issues very well by using mediation tactics, positive reinforcement, and one-on-one conferences with parents, kids, and teachers. I understand it is not easy to manage large classrooms of children, and that sometimes you want to resort to a “quick fix” punishment like taking away recess from kids.

But by using recess as bait – something that is dispensable and can be taken away for even the smallest refractions – we are telling kids that things like self-expression, self-care, and physical activity are not important. We are telling them that taking healthy breaks from your studies and cultivating your friendships aren’t worthwhile endeavors.

And in a world that is overworked, overstressed, and overburdened, this the exact wrong message to be sending our kids. We can – and should – do better on this. Our kids deserve it.

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