So, the next day, Leah was ready. And after lunch, when the 15-minute recess break came, she set out for the monkey bars.
Leah’s focus on recess is typical for elementary school children, and a good thing. Because there is a lot of learning that goes on at recess, and a lot of learning that goes on because of recess, according to experts.
Recess is an opportunity for children to develop physically while also learning critical social skills. It is also an important change of pace for early elementary school children, who are at a key time in their physical development, and who need regular breaks from the sedentary routines of a classroom.
"Children are meant to move, run and play, not just sit inside at a desk just doing work. Research shows that’s not the best way to improve learning," says Kathleen Schroeder, a professor from the Department of Movement Sciences at University of Illinois Chicago.
Recess helps children form lifelong exercise habits, as well as studying skills. "Learning is accentuated by physical well-being," Schroeder says.
Still, as researchers are learning more about the importance of recess, the time to play is ebbing away at many schools. Access to even a short recess is absent at many Chicago Public Schools. In the 1960s, many schools eliminated recess because of safety concerns and changes in teacher contracts. And today, standardized tests are often cited as the culprit.
Who needs recess?
South Loop Principal Patrick Bacciellieri says since schools are increasingly centered around meeting local and national testing standards—in accordance with the No Child Left Behind Act—there simply isn’t enough time in the school day for a recess break at his school.
The school’s test scores have risen over the last four years, and last year it was ranked in the top 20 of Chicago schools on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT). Baccellieri says that success is partly due to a tightly organized school day.
But are test scores the right measure for the health of students?
The American Association for the Child’s Right to Play claims that among children ages 5 to 8, 40 percent show signs of cardiac stress from obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and inactive lifestyles.
Meanwhile, the Illinois Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, based in downstate Jacksonville, advocates for more recess in Illinois schools. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s School Health Index recommends at least 20 minutes of recess each day.
"I don’t think it’s any secret that obesity and lifestyle diseases are on the rise," Schroeder says. "There’s not a whole lot we can do about our genetic disposition. We can control them, though, with exercise as well as diet."
Marc Atkins, a professor of psychology at University of Illinois at Chicago, and Elise Cappella, a post-doctoral research fellow, have been studying what no recess means to students.
"Inmates in Joliet get an hour a day to exercise," Atkins says. So why not schoolchildren?
But in Chicago, Atkins and Cappella are going up against a 35-year trend away from recess and prolonged lunch periods.
In a 1998 assessment by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, BetsAnn Smith reported that Chicago Public Schools began shifting in the late 1960s from open campus schedules, which often sent students home in the middle of the school day, to closed campuses. The shift began in high crime neighborhoods—for safety reasons—but quickly spread across the city.
"This allowed teachers to leave school at the same time as their students," Smith wrote. "Very quickly, then, a schedule intended as a safety measure for schools in the most troubled neighborhoods of the city evolved into a CPS standard. Over 90 percent of Chicago’s elementary schools continue to operate on this schedule."
Contractually, the shift moved the 45-minute lunch and recess time, allotted for teachers, to the end of the day. That effectively closed schools at 2:30 p.m. and left only a half-hour lunch period to break up five hours of instruction.
Phyliss Pickett, a member of the Illinois Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, says the elimination of recess in Chicago schools "leaves kids basically with no activity during the school day."
It’s also mental health
But recess not only helps with a child’s physical well being—it also contributes to a child’s mental health.
"They need to be able to run and try and figure out what kinds of skills they can do," says Terri Thorkildsen, a professor of educational psychology at University of Illinois at Chicago. "Their skills are all very much developing. With desk and indoor routines all the time, they don’t get to test that."
Especially in the lower grades before middle school, Thorkildsen says, children need unstructured playtime to help develop physically and mentally. Thorkildsen believes physical education classes and afterschool athletics simply aren’t enough.
"Imaginative play can’t be underemphasized," Thorkildsen says. "The absence of recess does make it difficult to make children learn social skills on their own."
Thorkildsen once worked with a Montessori school in Milwaukee, and remembers when a fifth-grade boy punched a female classmate during recess. None of the kids told their teachers, Thorkildsen remembers, but that didn’t mean the boy, regarded as a class bully, went unpunished. Afterward, the rest of the class refused to let the puncher work with them on class projects—but he steadfastly refused to apologize. Finally, after being shut out of the social lives of his peers for weeks, Thorkildsen recalls, the student relented.
"As soon as he apologized, he was back in the fold," Thorkildsen remembers.
And if kids don’t get a break, they find a way to take it.
Atkins and Cappella found that even in tightly structured schools, kids fit in downtime. During the 2004-05 school year, the researchers watched students at the National Teachers Academy in Bronzeville.
During breaks, Atkins sometimes monitored the students in the bathroom, and he says they often ended up jostling each other in lieu of an outside break. Sometimes, he says, students turn a quick bathroom trip into a 20-minute break.
"They’ll all be in there, fooling around and having a good time," Atkins says.
Larry Nucci, a professor of educational psychology at University of Illinois at Chicago, says, "Social interactions occur primarily in recess. If you eliminate recess, all of this social, moral education becomes artificial."
And Nucci believes that recess breaks are critical for academic achievement. In Japan, Nucci says, 10-minute breaks are allowed throughout the day. He says periodic breaks allow students "cognitive downtime" critical for processing classroom instruction.
Beye School students in Oak Park use their break for a variety of physical and social activities, ranging from pickup games of soccer and tag football to more freely structured affairs.
Fifth-grader Conrad Schillinger-Robinet plays kickball and soccer during recess, and says most of the girls in his class jump rope.
"The girls usually go together," third-grader Matthias Pergams explains. "They sit down and play in random places and play weird games."
Sometimes though, recess is less a teaching moment and more a chance for students, like anyone else, to have a brief break from the pressures of the school day. Beye school third-grader Mari Kaczkowski says she uses recess to catch up with her friends.
"I like playing with my friend," Kaczkowski said. "We talk about where we’ve been."
And fifth-grader Christopher Johnson has a favorite recess memory: "This one time, I found a grasshopper in the field," he says, motioning to the grassy stretch behind him. "I was trying to catch it. It was hard."
At Perspectives Charter School, officials take students’ need for an active lifestyle very seriously.
All middle school students in the South Loop school take at least one quarter of yoga a year. In addition, school officials prohibit consuming soft drinks and junk food in the lunchroom, and instead rely on fresh meals cooked on school grounds. And after lunch, Perspectives administrator Glennese Ray says, students can use the rest of the break for recess.
During morning yoga classes, instructor Hugo Navas uses New Age music to relax his students. After a half-hour of instruction, Navas ends the class by asking the students a series of questions about the benefits of exercises, exhorting them to eat less fast food, ride their bicycles and run more. While the students are quick to shout back the benefits of exercise—"you get an endorphin rush," one student yells out—they’re stumped when Navas asks them what happens when you don’t exercise. After a moment of silence, he explains to them the dangers of being sedentary.
Genesis Villalobos says she appreciates the strenuous morning yoga sessions at Perspectives, along with the midday recess breaks.
"Yoga’s fun," Villalobos says, "it gets tiring."
And Villalobos and Anthony Davis, both sixth-graders last year, say they typically end up with 15 or 20 minutes outside during each lunch break. Most middle school students, they say, go outside regardless of the temperature.
But Villalobos used to attend Cooper Dual Language Academy in the city’s Pilsen neighborhood, where, she recalls, students were not let out for recess. Exercise was limited to a weekly physical education class, and Villalobos recalls a rigid routine with few opportunities for movement.
"We were always sitting down," Villalobos recalls. "They didn’t let us go outside."
Haydn Bush is managing editor of Chicago Journal, a sister publication of Chicago Parent.