Why recess is as valuable as any subject in school

Why recess is as valuable as any subject in school

Editor’s note: This article was updated on Sept. 12, 2023.

My eight-year-old son, Jack, is in grade 3. School, thankfully, isn’t a battle. In fact, he likes his teachers, has fun with his friends, and seems to enjoy most of what a school day entails. When pressed to name a favourite subject, though, he doesn’t hesitate: phys ed.

Despite receiving a paltry one and a half hours of physical education per week, it merits top spot.

Recess is a close second, which begs the question: is recess even a subject?

To young kids it is, and a valued one at that.

Recess permits fidgety bodies to run, jump, explore, and engage in different and more stimulating ways than sitting at cramped desks for hours on end. (According to the 2016 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, kids spend 50-70 percent of their time sitting.)

Recess is freedom. Recess is a welcome break. Recess, unfortunately, is also frequently taken away as punishment.

Guest post by AfL Role Model Amy Walsh

Proud mom of three busy and active kids, Amy Walsh is a former professional soccer player and Olympian who loves teaching movement to people of all walks of life.

Often used by teachers as a bargaining chip for good behaviour, my third-grader dutifully and sadly reports every time recess has been withheld due to misbehaviour or unfinished schoolwork. On a school day with no scheduled physical education, children could spend their time entirely indoors with no physical activity or play. Add inclement weather to the equation and recess periods get slashed further.

The arguments against recess are easy to make. Teachers are overworked, underpaid, and pressured by time constraints and curriculum demands. They need more time to teach and recess is seen as an unnecessary impediment. It isn’t time well spent; it is a waste of time.

But a growing body of evidence is indicating that physical activity promotes brain health and leads to improved thinking, learning, attention, and focus (ParticipACTION report card, 2018).

In order to listen, learn and behave, kids need to be active.

If a child is disruptive or inattentive, instead of removing the opportunity to move and get outside, recess could remedy behavioural issues and improve the classroom dynamic.

A 2013 American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement declared that recess is so important, it should not be withheld for academic or punitive reasons.

As valuable as any other subject taught at school, schools should treat recess as a vital component of a student’s day. Recess is not a reward for good behaviour, nor is it a privilege. Recess is a right.

Coupled with a more sedentary lifestyle, the decline in recess time has many children struggling to meet the recommended 60 minutes a day of moderate activity.

Schools have access to an incredible number of young people in order to champion the value of healthy and active lifestyles, yet often fail to affect change. So why aren’t we using our resources adequately?

While the Finnish model has long been heralded as the gold standard for schooling, Canada has been slow to adopt many of their practices. In Finland, students and teachers take a 15-minute break for every 45 minutes of instruction. The last I checked, my son gets two 15-minute recess periods per day, one in the morning and one immediately following lunch. In between those precious breaks, there is a lot of sitting while trying to pay attention. More frequent breaks would enhance physical and cognitive development while improving a child’s ability to focus and learn.

Katy Bowman, a noted biomechanist who studies the role movement plays in the body and in the world, writes about the benefit of “movement snacks” interspersed throughout the day. She suggests that instead of looking at the Canadian recommendation of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity for kids as one or two periods of scheduled “exercise,” schools and families should reorganize their days to fit in as much movement as possible.

Classrooms might include standing desks and provide cushions or mats to facilitate sitting on the floor, and outdoor play could be used as a teaching tool.

Families could integrate more active transportation, encourage free play outdoors, and reduce screen time. When movement is layered throughout your day, it all adds up. Recess does help, though. If every school gave kids four 15-minute recesses in a day, I believe many children could easily meet the Canadian physical activity recommendations.

While I’m uncertain if and when anything will change regarding recess in our schools, I do know that when that bell rings, it is a sight to behold as kids spill out into the schoolyard, equal parts chaos and excitement.

My hope is that our school boards and governments are just as excited about the link between increased physical activity and success in the classroom, and will encourage teachers to value recess as a crucial part of the curriculum.

4 responses to “Why recess is as valuable as any subject in school

  1. As a retired teacher: I believe that most teachers, myself included, gove their children breaks in between sitting at desks to play games involving movement: Simon Says; Songs; Games; music etc. I used to take my children to the gymnasium when the weather was poor to play running games if possible for recess. Teacher’s have the training. We use our classrooms for the best.

  2. Ummmmm…. You said “The arguments against recess are easy to make. Teachers are overworked, underpaid, and pressured by time constraints and curriculum demands. They need more time to teach and recess is seen as an unnecessary impediment. It isn’t time well spent; it is a waste of time.”

    Firstly, to my knowledge, even back in the dark ages (5 years ago) when this was written, no one credible was making ANY of these arguments. This seems like a projected strawman that isn’t actually anyone’s position. We teachers ALL know the value of movement for cognitive functionality. It is on par with hydration and blood-sugar.

    If a child is being kept inside EVERY day then clearly that corrective method isn’t working, and another must be found. However, withholding some of a child’s free-time is normally exceedingly effective. You NEVER hold them for the whole time as they MUST be given time to eat, but holding them for 20mins of their lunch, because they were swearing and shouting and throwing things at other people, when they desperately want to go hang out with their friends and play teaches them that actions have consequences and that they need to behave appropriately in school.

    It is not our only tool for dealing with bad behavior but it isn’t going anywhere. Now, I’m a secondary school teacher so it’s a bit different for primary kids and I won’t presume to speak to that side of things but in secondary. It normally works well, it’s generally harmless, it has sensible limits, and it’s easy for students to understand.

    I love the suggestions in this article about improving the measly amount of time that students are physically active during the day and in the classroom, but a direct criticism of the principle of detention is nothing short of naïve.

    Oh and I can’t find the american pediatrics article mentioned in the article as the link takes you to the NYT and the other link takes you to a… REDACTED STUDY!

  3. Well done Ama. The ruling bodies in our school boards have to wake up and soon.
    Maybe they need some more exercise on a daily basis. They could start with two 15 minute periods, just like the students. Maybe that will improve their thought processes about what the kids need, and should have.!

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