Sixteen-year-old Ricardo Bailey, of Bedford Heights, recalls being younger and transitioning from having recess at school in the sixth grade to never having it again.
“My classmates and I were disappointed to lose recess in the seventh grade, but we were groomed in elementary school to see losing recess as a way of growing up,” says Bailey.
He adds that in middle school, the workload during the day increased and the curriculum was far more challenging. According to Bailey, rarely, if at all, did students have the opportunity to go outside or get involved in activities that offered down time.
“We definitely had more classes,” he says. “The entire school day was in the classroom. We didn’t do much outside the classroom and it just got mentally tiring being in the same space every single day, the entire day, the whole school year.”
Providing a ‘Brain Break’
With the increased focus on testing and student performance on a variety of structured assessments, many extracurricular programs — including recess — that contributed to a well-rounded education have fallen by the wayside. Children benefit from a break where they are allowed to let go of their intense focus and engage in some other activity.
According to Jayni Rasmussen, senior campaign advisor for Outdoors Alliance with Kids in Washington, D.C., recess is an important part of helping kids de-stress.
“We have a number of research collected that basically shows that children who play outside and get access to the outdoors are more physically active and less likely to have chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity,” Rasmussen says. “They are more creative in how they play, less aggressive overall and show better concentration. Several studies show that children who have at least an hour of physical
activity a day, especially outdoors, exhibit better cognition and critical thinking skills.”
When Eric Sikora first arrived as principal of St. Rita School in Solon, he learned that recess had been canceled for the upper classmen, the seventh and eighth graders. One of his first actions was to reinstate recess for all grade levels in the K-8 school.
“There is such a strong benefit for our students to have that break where they can go outside and expel that energy that they built up for the first part of the school day,” Sikora says. “The benefits of getting them out for that recess definitely transition into the classroom, where we would see the benefits of that little brain break. The recess and fresh air clears their minds and refreshes them for the rest of the day.”
Sikora adds that St. Rita School does not necessarily have fancy equipment, but its space allows kids to be creative in developing games and competitions.
Unstructured vs. Structured Play
There are a number of emerging practices that strive to maximize the benefits of recess. These range from offering structured play to incorporating nature-based environments.
North American Association for Environmental Education just released a guidebook that acts as a resource for early childhood educators wanting to create outdoor play in nature-based environments. These environments are designed to actively engage children with nature.
“‘The Youth Outdoor Policy Playbook’ shares universal themes and best practices that guide the design and use of spaces for children to play,” said Sarah Bodor, director of policy and affiliate relations for North American Association for Environmental Education. “The idea is to allow for opportunities that enable kids to explore recreational activities while interacting with the natural world. This could be as simple as planting a garden or putting up a bird feeder in the outdoor play area.
“Also, our playbook highlights best practices for using natural space, as its use can be critical to the development of the child; for example, just creating a looped path in the outdoor play area will increase physical activity by 20 percent. You will find kids just running the course of the loop.”
While unstructured playtime is coveted by many children, Dominic Ianiro, athletic director and physical education teacher at the Lillian and Betty Ratner Montessori School in Pepper Pike, says that some kids prefer recess that offers structured activities.
“Kids need their opportunities to just go out and make their own games and move around, but there are some kids who need a bit of routine,” he says. “We come in every day and offer a different game that the kids know they will have an opportunity to play. Typically, we have the same kids come every day because they like that structure.”
Ianiro, who also works at Force Sports running the physical education and athletic department, joins the kids at recess to facilitate organized and inclusive team building games that at times require problem solving skills. The games range from a code breaker activity, which requires the students to work together to crack a code for jumping through hula hoops in the right order, to games that are as simple as kickball.
Ianiro says that what he provides doesn’t take away from the value of an unstructured recess, where kids create their own games to play. He strongly believes that the structured recess only adds to the strength of recess overall.
For many kids, recess is the simplest means to access the outdoors. School is a safe place to go outside to experience nature. Although a lot of schoolyards are not green at all or don’t have educators that are engaging kids with the outdoors, students still seem to find a way to learn and experience outdoors during recess if just given the opportunity.