This Is Why Schools Need To Stop Taking Away Recess As A Form Of Punishment

by Melissa L. Fenton
Originally Published: 
A boy sitting on the top of a bench placing one hand on his cheek.
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It’s such a common practice at my children’s school that I never thought twice about it, as I’ve always been on the teacher’s side when it came to all things classroom discipline. I’m not privy to what they deal with day in and day out, and what classroom management techniques and strategies they need to employ, so like most parents I put my complete trust in them (and the school’s administration) to carry out what they see as necessary and fitting forms of discipline.

But in recent years, one of those forms of discipline has not only one come under great scrutiny, it also happens to be one of the most widely used forms of discipline for a whole variety of infractions. And what it is? Being kept out from participating in daily recess.

Today’s students are held out from (or being made to sit during) recess as a consequence for everything from late homework assignments and unsigned parent forms to general classroom disruptions. It’s an extremely common practice — one that, according to a study, is being used by over 81% of schools, and one that school principals report is used as a punishment about 77% of the time.

Although it’s a practice that teachers claim is highly effective, it may also have some serious consequences of its own.

We’re all aware of the many and far-reaching benefits of daily recess, and outdoor free play in general. Study after study confirms that children need this daily break from academics, and that it plays a crucial and necessary role in a child’s creative, social, and emotional development.

So why are schools bent on taking this vital daily practice away?

Well, for one, today’s teachers say they have little choice when it comes to classroom discipline. College of Education professor Olga Jarrett states that educators use this punishment because they simply don’t know what else to do. In a classroom full of unruly students, teachers feel that taking away recess is one of few options for maintaining control. It is a consequence that students feel immediately, and doesn’t require approval or a note sent home to a parent. Recess has been made to feel like a privilege that is earned, instead of a regular and consistent break in the day that both children and teachers need. And when it’s made to be something that children feel they need to earn, it becomes an easy thing to take away when it appears they have not earned it.

To add insult to injury, it’s typically those often fidgety and restless children that actually need the recess break the most, but who appear to also have it taken away the most. Sheila Kahrs, principal of the Haymon-Morris Middle School in Winder, Georgia, believes that the practice of punishing kids for bad behavior by making them sit out part or all of recess can have the negative effect of making the problem worse when kids lose the opportunity to take a break and work off excess energy.

Recently, even the American Academy of Pediatrics got involved in the recess debate, issuing a striking statement on the crucial role of recess and the practice of withholding it. It’s something parents can share with their local school district should they become concerned that this practice is being conducted all too often. It states, “Recess is a necessary break in the day for optimizing a child’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development. In essence, recess should be considered a child’s personal time, and it should not be withheld for academic or punitive reasons.”

The National Association for Sports and Physical Education has also recently chimed in, stating: “Students should not be denied recess so that they can complete class work or as a means of punishment.”

A recess resurgence is currently underway across the country, with many local and state districts implementing strict recess guidelines and time minimums, but experts say it’s still not enough, and won’t be until we’re able to offer teachers a greater alternative for discipline. Some of those alternatives include a more positive-centered approach, and linking the right discipline in direct correlation to the troublesome behavior. For example, instead of dealing with a student who was rude or mean to a another student by taking away that child’s entire recess time, teachers can expect that student to apologize and perhaps only miss the first minute or two of recess time to reflect on what they did wrong.

Parents can and need to be on the frontline of recess advocacy by contacting their local school district, and also working cooperatively with teachers on discipline and classroom management. By staying involved in the creation and implementation of recess policy, we can ensure our children do not continue to miss on one of the school day’s most important events.

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