It turns out that taking a break from fractions to play football in the schoolyard has more than just physical health benefits. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently released a statement emphasizing the importance of recess, and touting its benefits for the “whole child,” including academic improvements and the opportunity for the child to grow and learn social skills that cannot be taught in the classroom.
“We went into this study with the attitude that recess was good for preventing childhood obesity,” said Dr. Robert Murray, one of the authors of the study. “We discovered it had a lot more influence than we thought.”
But still, Dr. Murray says that in schools across the country, as many as 40 percent are cutting down on recess, or doing away with it all together, partially because of pressure to perform well on standardized tests.
“Teachers assume that they can teach kids more if they cut recess, but their best bet is to use these recess breaks to allow the child to process,” said Dr. Murray. “Adults take breaks throughout the day, but we just don’t call it recess.”
In Manhattan, a child’s recess experience is as varied as the schools themselves. But of almost two-dozen recent graduates from The City College of New York’s teaching program, 14 out of 16 current New York City elementary school teachers have recess where they work, and most have it every day.
At Ascension School on West 108th Street, a private Catholic School, recess is taken very seriously, and students rarely play inside. In fact, the street in front of the school is shut down every day just so kids can play outside. This has stirred up controversy in the community over the past couple of years from neighbors complaining about the noise. But, Principal Christopher McMahon said, they will continue fighting for their children.
“This struggle will not deter us because recess is too important to our program,” said McMahon. “Recess is a time for kids to release energy. It needs to be unstructured because it gives kids a chance to express themselves.”
According to Dr. Murray, unstructured recess, like the program at Ascension, is actually the best way to go.
“Unstructured recess gives kids maximum control over their own time,” he said. “Some kids may want to read, some may want to play kickball or dodgeball. It forces the kid to be creative.”
At Yorkville Community School on East 91st Street between First and Second Avenues, recess is just as important. The difference is four coaches come to the school every day during recess to organize sports games with the students, thus making the recess experience more structured.
“It keeps every child directed and they have someone supervising them so no one’s straggling off or not keeping active,” said Principal Samantha Kaplan.
Principal Kaplan has also observed that recess has had a positive influence on Yorkville students’ social abilities. She once observed a new student who was shy to make friends bond with classmates through a game of basketball.
“Once kids find common interests they become members of the community pretty quickly,” she said, referring to the atmosphere on the playground.
But despite good intentions, many schools simply do not have the budget for a regular recess program. The Lillian Weber School on West 92nd Street would not have a recess program if the PTA had not intervened. With all of the DOE budgetary restrictions, PTA president Jeanne Moreland said the school could not pay for teacher aides to watch kids on the playground. So, the PTA had to scrape the money together to hire teacher aides on their own.
“There’s not enough money for anything right now. We have enough money for the teachers’ salaries basically,” said Moreland. “I don’t think it’ll fix itself unless there’s a culture change on education and how things are funded.”
Schools have certainly had to get creative to keep recess in their programs. At P.S. 76 on West 121st Street, interns from Americorp come every day to watch the kids during recess, as well as teach them games and sports. As a result, said Principal Charles De Berry, recess budgets are usually not a concern.
Dr. Robert Murray did mention that school budgets were a factor that contributed to quality and quantity of education. And poorer schools, he said, are most likely to cut recess in order to get test scores back up. Ironically though, he said, it’s the kids in troubled areas who need recess the most.
At P.S. 46, on 8th Avenue and Harlem River Drive, recess has always been an important part of the school day. Principal George Young said this is especially important because most of the students come from housing projects and many parents do not want their children playing outside.
“I work in a challenging area. Recess is the only time they get to actually play outside,” he said. “When you see the children getting along and playing with one another, it reinforces the fact that we’re all in this together.”
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