The State of Play

Greg Dawson recalls the good ol’ days of school recess, and finds that this cherished—and essential—play time for kids is quickly disappearing.



David Vallejo

Call me Marty McFly. A few months ago I began noticing odd headlines in the Orlando Sentinel that made me feel like I had just been transported back to the future after visiting the 1950s.

“Bills would mandate recess for school kids” and “Recess may soon be offered daily.”

This was happening, the stories explained, because parents were lobbying—begging—legislators and school boards to restore recess where it had been dropped or to increase it where it had been reduced to little more than a pit stop.

Marty McFly wonders how we got here. I remember when recess was as American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. A birthright of American kids. An unquestioned good in the education of children.

“It’s crazy,” says Lynn VanHorne, who retired in 2011 after teaching 24 years in Orange County schools, all at McCoy Elementary. “How can they ‘rediscover’ something as basic as this? What sort of system took it away in the first place? They didn’t listen to the professionals—the teachers.”

Or the students. When I was a kid and introduced to an adult, the first question from above always was the same.

“What’s your favorite subject in school?”

Unless you were a precocious nerd or budding politician and said “science” or “reading,” the answer was a resounding, gleefully defiant “Recess!”

It was a kid joke. Our innocent way of mocking adults for asking such a silly question. Didn’t they know we hated school? Of course we didn’t really hate school. We hated being confined, and sitting still for long periods of time, and being told what to do. It’s how kids roll.

The principals and teachers at Elm Heights and Rogers Elementary in Bloomington, Indiana, understood that. That’s why we had recess three times a day including a one-hour lunch period with most of it spent on the playground in unsupervised but harmless mayhem.

The only harm I remember is a window broken by a softball in the daily pickup game we organized and ran ourselves. Oh, and I lost all my marbles—the little round glass ones—in cutthroat games of “keeps” at recess.

Our teachers knew we needed exercise to exorcize our demons and would return from recess eager to learn because that, too, is the way kids roll.

Teachers like VanHorne never stopped knowing the basic truth of how kids learn. It was kibitzers with political agendas and no classroom experience who imposed punitive tests and wacko standards forcing schools to replace recess with rote test prep.

Recess began to shrink in VanHorne’s last five years at McCoy. By the time she retired, “it had been removed totally, except for kindergarten.” Out of desperation she had students do exercises in the classroom.

“I did it as a last resort. You know how dull that is compared to recess?”

I was reminded of just how dull, and inadequate, when I visited Keeth Elementary in Winter Springs, where the students spend at least 40 to 60 minutes a day outside in various forms of exercise, says Principal Pete Gaffney.

“Kids by nature want to run, to laugh, to burn off energy. So much of the day is structured, it’s important for them to spend time just playing,’’ he says. “When it doesn’t happen they lose focus and stamina for what’s happening in the classroom.”

Since 2013 the Seminole County School Board has required all K-5 schools to have 20 minutes of recess a day in addition to PE.  Keeth also has PAT (planned physical activity), which is  “essentially recess,” Gaffney says. (Orange County “encourages” K-5 schools to have at least 20 minutes of recess on days when students are not scheduled for PE).

Gaffney, 43, taught PE before going into administration and retains a bouncy kinetic air as he patrols the halls and playgrounds. “I’ve always known the importance of physical fitness, of getting kids moving.”

At least at Keeth Elementary, recess is back, and just as I remember it in all its joyous anarchy and variety. 

Kids running, jumping, swinging, sliding, shouting, laughing, chasing, doing cartwheels and handstands. Two girls under a tree pouring sand in and out of bowls and metal pans. An impromptu soccer game, with players from both genders and multiple ethnicities, that resembles an ecstatic prison break.

Three girls methodically digging a hole in the sand in front of the swings. A boy starts to kick dirt into the hole. “Don’t you dare!” the diggers cry in unison, and he slinks away.

“Teach your children well,” sang Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. And don’t forget to let them play. 

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