School Recess: A Right or a Privilege?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


April 27, 2017

Recess. I do not know about you, but when I was in elementary school, that was a word that I really looked forward to hearing. Going outside—even where I grew up, outside of Boston, when it was cold and miserable a good part of the school year—there was nothing better. Playing games out there, talking with my friends, running around like a nut... I think we had it twice a day, and I could not wait.

A lot of people are having to wait today. Today's kids may or may not get recess. Sometimes, some of them find out that they are losing access to recess as a form of punishment for misbehavior in the classroom.

Given the obesity epidemic that is ravaging our country, and particularly the problems that kids have and the evidence that shows that kids will perform better if they get to take a break—I am talking about young kids now, who need to get outside, run around, have some social interaction, and in a sense get some of the pressure of the classroom off and a chance to vent some of their energies—I think we should treat recess as a right, not a privilege. I think recess is just as important as math and reading. We would not say to a kid who misbehaved, "Well, sorry, little Johnny, you are going to lose your right to do math." I do not think we should say it about recess.

If we want to punish kids or penalize them, we might give them extra assignments. You might come up with other ideas about what a suitable punishment is. Taking away physical activity because it is a privilege or something that is just fun or is not necessary sends the wrong message. Exercise along with nutrition is important to health. We want to make sure that kids take that seriously and develop good habits.

I do not want to hear about schools that say we have to pack the schedule so tightly that the kids have to eat lunch during English or during physics, and there is no time for recess. There always ought to be time for recess. Every kid should be asked to develop good habits—getting physical exercise and being able to find ways to relieve stress and strain. That takes place, I think, by having activity outdoors.

Let's continue to make sure that physicians push the idea that recess is a right. We should not trade it off. We should not make it optional. We should not let teachers, schools, administrators, and school boards get away with the idea that recess is just a frill. It is a necessity.

I am Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University School of Medicine. Thanks for watching.

Talking Points: School Recess: A Right or a Privilege?

Issues to consider:

  • Daily physical activity could help combat obesity, which now affects 1 in 6 children and adolescents in the United States.[1]

  • Obese youth have an elevated risk for such health problems as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, unhealthy blood cholesterol patterns, and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease.[2]

  • Healthcare professionals contend that creating a positive recess climate helps students to be engaged in meaningful play and return to class ready to learn.

  • In a study, 11- and 12-year-old students who participated in physical education lessons, including fitness stations and team games at varied intensities, demonstrated recall of a greater percentage of vocabulary words on a memory task, before and after class discussions (delayed recall of the same words), than students who sat for the same amount of time.[2]

  • Some healthcare professionals say that physical activity during recess is unlikely to provide enough activity for children to gain any notable health benefits.

  • In Minnesota, lawmakers are considering a bill that would prohibit schools from withholding recess time as a form of punishment. A separate bill in that state would require schools to set clear policies on how much recess time they provide to students and to publish those policies.[3]

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children get 60 minutes of physical activity each day.[4]

  • Some critics opposed to recess say that it is a waste of valuable time that could be more profitably used for classroom instruction.

  • Some healthcare professionals contend that during recess, kids are bullied and that on the playground they learn aggression.


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