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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. Most jobs for adults are required to have 15-minutes breaks for every four hours of work. Why are the rules different for kids?

    Luckily, my teaching days were back when recess was part of the day. A ten-minute break once or twice in the morning and once in the afternoon—plus half an hour at lunch really helped everyone.

    Perhaps the pendulum will swing again and kids will get recess.

    1. Great point about adults being required to have breaks, Connie. I like the idea of having two breaks a day plus lunch. That sounds about right to me. It would help kids focus and would keep the teachers from feeling so burned out.

  2. What a moving article; thanks for sharing! We had a PLC on John Medina’s book Brain Rules last year and the thing that has stuck with me is physical activity acts like “cognitive candy,” validating your despite vs. because of recess argument. I don’t think we can say (do!) this enough for our littlest learners.

  3. I think it’s a brilliant idea to write it in to your lesson plans! I applaud your boldness 😀 And it just boggles my mind that these principals who brag that they are all up on the latest research refuse to let recess happen!

  4. I cannot believe this!!! Oh. My. Word. I couldn’t help but giggle when you wrote it into your lesson plans AND attached a standard to them. WAY TO GO! That sure is following protocol isnt it? Your principal had to secretly smile at that one 🙂

    I read “Brain Rules” in grad school. Excellent read. Check out “Brain Gym” for easy exercises to do daily in the classroom to help your brain strengthen and create neural connections (pathways).

    Educators…Would you not accept a teaching position if you knew ahead of time they did not allow recess??

    Great job thinking outside of the box!

    1. Thanks for the book recommendations! Will check those out!

      I don’t think I would have accepted the teaching position if I knew recess was not allowed. That was back when schools were fighting over teachers and I could have taught anywhere I wanted. I was new to the state and that was a small detail that was left out when I was interviewing. Everyone acted like it was no big deal because every school in the district abided by it. They are still the only district I know of that bans recess across the board for elementary kids. No neighboring county does it.

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