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New federal guidelines aim to help schools reshape recess

Feb 2, 2017

The benefits and necessity of school recess have been widely debated over the past decade. But growing research shows recess helps improve academic achievement, prevents bullying, and develops emotional and communication skills.

For example, a 2009 study of more than 10,000 American kids found improved behavior when they got at least one recess period of 15 minutes or longer.

But how should effective recess be structured? How long should it be? What should children do during that time? There seems to be little guidance on what makes "good" recess.

A new set of guidelines aims to help schools figure that out. The guidelines come from researchers at the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The set of 19 evidence-based strategies for a good recess policy includes involving students in planning and leading recess, designating spaces for outdoor and indoor recess, and teaching conflict resolution. Michelle Carter is senior program manager at SHAPE and helped develop the guidelines. She told NPR:

There's a lot that has to be squeezed into that time a student is in class. I don't think there's a value placed in recess and physical activity.

A concern at some schools is whether kids are getting enough recess, or if they have recess at all. Sometimes teachers withhold recess to punish bad behavior, although it is a practice that has been eliminated more and more in recent years. According to Education Week:

Schools around the country have implemented policies that limit or eliminate teachers' ability to take away recess time, their efforts bolstered by district policies and state laws that place renewed emphasis on physical activity and by increased public involvement in the creation of district wellness policies.

And many schools have cut back or eliminated recess to increase instruction time. But this can be especially detrimental in schools serving largely low-income students, who may not have opportunities for physical activity outside of school. According to The Atlantic:

For poor children, in cities in particular, the problems are a lack of safe places to play, parents who are busy trying to pay for housing and other basics and schools that are cutting out recess and physical education to make more time for academics. Schools nationwide have been reducing time for recess and phys ed. But those in poor areas, in particular, are feeling pressure to narrow disparities in student performance. In close to one-third of schools with the highest poverty rates, recess has been completely eliminated.

The CDC and SHAPE America recommend giving elementary school students at least 20 minutes of recess daily and providing middle and high school students with a period of daily physical activity in addition to physical education and classroom physical activity, according to the guidelines.

Schools have the potential to develop an infrastructure that creates daily opportunities for students at all grade levels to experience physical activity or play at school and create balance in the school day.