The Recess Gap

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In recent years, a number of studies and articles have been published on the important role of school recess. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, recess promises significant physical, emotional, and mental benefits to students.

These benefits can be seen in Finland, where the 75 minutes of daily recess its students receive is believed to be a key factor in the country’s high scoreson the international PISA test.

The United States registers considerably lower than Finland on the PISA scale, and many wonder if the fact that American recess time has dwindled to an average of 27.8 minutes per day has anything to do with it. Sadly, this minimal amount of recess is even lower in urban areas and in schools populated by poor and minority children.


A prime example of this is Folwell School in Minneapolis. With a demographic of over 75% Hispanic and black students, the school displayed a reading achievement gap of approximately 40 percentage points in 2014. That same year, a kindergarten teacher reported that his students received only five to ten minutes of recess each day. Poor and minority students like the ones at Folwell are not only facing an achievement gap in academics; they are also facing one in recess and play time.

So why is it that recess is dwindling? The most commonly cited culprits are:

  • Tests – No Child Left Behind increased pressure to perform well in math and reading on standardized tests. According to the Center on Education Policy, “44% of districts reported cutting time” from areas such as recess in an attempt to make room for more instruction time in these areas.
  • Lawsuit fears – As this winter’s rush to ban sledding demonstrated, fun activities can lead to injuries, and recess is no different. Schools are not eager to face sue-happy parents whose children might be injured on the playground.    
  • Behavior incidents – According to the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, “a majority of discipline-related problems occur outside of class time (87%) with the majority of those occurring during recess or lunch (89%).” Given the push to lower suspensions in the Twin Cities, it’s obvious that teachers and administrators are in no hurry to provide opportunities for more mischief. Naturally, eliminating a major source of the problem might seem like a good idea.

Concerns such as these are genuine. But in our eagerness to address the concern of student achievement, have we taken away the very medium which might help students focus and learn more effectively? In our eagerness to ensure that students are safe, have we removed opportunities to learn responsible behavior and social interaction with others?

Perhaps it’s time to reconsider recess.

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