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Teaching Tips & Tricks, Uncategorized   |   Oct 27, 2011

Solutions when recess and play aren’t allowed

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Solutions when recess and play aren’t allowed

By Angela Watson


Many school districts are now shortening or eliminating recess altogether to make more time for academics and test prep. It’s a disheartening trend that bucks a tremendous amount of research proving that children learn through play, and that they need times of free play in order to process what they’ve learned through formal instruction.

So what can teachers do when their principals or school systems are opposed to free play and recess?

Do it anyway. And write it in your lesson plans.

Lisa Neilson, in a comment on her post at The Innovative Educator, puts it this way: “…document and celebrate all that is learned by, with, and from children when we let them play.” 

I learned the importance of this when I taught 2nd grade in an inner city school in Miami that had no windows and did not allow recess. (I believe “hellacious” is the best term to describe that experience for both me and the kids, especially on 70 degree winter days.) I had just moved to Florida and didn’t realize when I accepted the position that Miami-Dade County Schools only allows recess for grades K-1. Changing a district-wide policy seemed pretty much out of the question…but I knew I had to subvert the system for the sake of my students.

My lesson plan book (which was checked daily) had countless instances of indoor and outdoor play recorded, with corresponding state standards, of course. For example, when I taught skip counting, the first ten minutes of the lesson were spent on the blacktop with the kids playing a skip count game I made up (similar to duck-duck-goose: we chanted by 2’s or 5’s or 10’s as each person was ‘ducked’, and the ‘goose’ was the person whose head was tapped at 100.) I gave my kids 5 minutes at the beginning and end of lessons with math manipulatives to play with the materials however they wanted (this may have been documented as something like “exploring mathematical principles through the use of hands-on materials in both teacher-directed and student-directed activities.”) The kids created and explored games during instruction and in centers, and played games for homework.

After a few weeks of proving myself, I convinced the principal to let me take the kids on the unused school playground for the last ten minutes before lunch, on the condition that students completed all their work in the morning first. After a few weeks of that, she let me take them out again for the last five minutes of the day, as well. She was reluctant but couldn’t deny the fact that my kids were focused and engaged pretty much every time she came in my classroom, and since we didn’t waste instructional time with management and behavioral issues, we had the time to spare.

This caused quite a stir among some of the other teachers: most were supportive, but some were critical, and I had to choose to do what was best for my kids even through the disapproving stares. After a school-wide staff meeting to analyze our benchmark scores, a co-worker asked in a stunned voice, “How are your kids’ scores so high every week when you take them out to recess twice a day?” I explained that their success was partially because, not despite, the time my students had for free play. After our conversation, that teacher asked for permission to take her class out twice a week…and was granted it.

Teachers do have power to subvert the system, more than we often realize. The key is to think outside the box about what’s possible and find something that works for your class. The solution may not work for all teachers, and that’s okay. Change starts with individuals.

How do you incorporate play into your instruction?

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. Children need to have opportunties to move and play during their school day.
    These activities are just as important as the academics.
    Teachers and parents need to stand up and advocate for what is right.

    1. Absolutely! Sometimes teachers think they can’t do much to change policies that are destructive for children (and often, they’re right!), but making small changes in the classroom can be powerful first steps toward change.

      You’re so right that parents can–and should–join in on advocating for change. If they support the teacher in these decisions, administrators and district level leaders are more likely to listen.

  2. Angela,

    I’m totally blown away that some schools are doing away with recess. Every learner needs a break – preferably a physical one, and I can’t believe school administrators think getting rid of recess breaks will help raise learning results. Does that mean there is no break for class or students between start of day and lunch?

    Good on you for resisting – shame it even requires documentation, but doing so will make the connection between play and learning more real for those who think a recess break is unnecessary.

    I’m still gobsmacked that some ‘educational’ administrators would see the value in this…

    Thanks for raising awareness of the need for teachers to remember their primary focus: the kids that they teach.

    All the best,


    1. Hi, Carla! No recess does in fact mean no break for students between the start of class and lunch. At the school I referenced in the post, my students had specials in the morning, so that helped. The afternoons were pretty brutal, though. Not only were they burned out, so was I! I really look forward to recess: time to get fresh air, clear my head a little bit, sit down for more than 3 seconds, etc. Recess is good for teachers, too. 🙂 I feel like the students and I both got more accomplished after having some time outdoors.

  3. This is awesome! It’s great that not only did you see the value of play time for your students’ learning, but you took action! We need more educators like you.

    At Playworks, we’re working to help schools to understand the value of recess and see how to make it a safe and productive part of the day. Not only can we all see the value of play, but there are studies that show kids focus better after recess and a survey of principals who say recess has an positive impact on learning.

    I’ll definitely be share your post with our networks! Hope you’ll check out our resources: http://playworks.org/training

  4. I’ve been sad to see the K teachers get rid of their kitchen sets and free play time. I’m doing reader’s theater with one of my reading groups. The first time I brought them out the kids were SO excited. Play helps kids learn to regulate their behavior because they have to stay in a role. That’s why it’s especially good for kids with attention problems. We talk about how you don’t want to have stop the whole play and say, “Oh, yeah. It’s my line. Ok…” because that sounds weird.

    1. Hi, Molly! One K teacher I know is required to have kitchen sets and blocks in her classroom, but isn’t allowed to give kids time to use them! Therefore, the materials take up valuable classroom real estate and serve as a major distraction for kids all day long (“When do we get to play with those?”) So sad! She says the 1st grade teachers at her school complain that the kids don’t know how to do social problem solving, and she cites the lack of play as the number one reason. It’s exactly as you said: “Play helps kids learn to regulate their behavior because they have to stay in a role.” Play is the natural time for teachers to help children learn how to communicate and collaborate. When kids miss out on this time in early childhood classrooms, it just makes it harder for them to function later on in school…and in life.

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