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Feature

Recess: not just fun and games

By Patty Mattern

From M, winter 2006

One expects a 9-year-old to rise up in protest when the school principal does away with recess, but a 56-year-old man? Trends to cut recess times or eliminate recess altogether frustrate University of Minnesota researcher Anthony Pellegrini. While some people view recess as trivial and unnecessary, such breaks foster children's development, says Pellegrini in his new book, Recess: Its Role in Education and Development. Pellegrini, an educational psychology professor, has spent 25 years on school playgrounds studying children's behavior and the impact of recess on different aspects of adjustment to school. His research shows that recess maximizes students' attention to classroom tasks and also helps them learn how to interact with each other socially. Still, an increasing number of schools are eliminating recess, to the detriment of children's development; Pellegrini hopes his research helps stop this trend. Many school administrators seem oblivious to the research. "I get more and more calls from distraught parents in the United States, Canada, and the UK. They are frantic because schools are eliminating recess," Pellegrini said.

Through his research Pellegrini has found that recess is an easy mark for elimination because children don't have as much power to advocate on their own behalf. "Frankly, kids are easy targets because schools can take something away from them and they can't make their voices heard," Pellegrini says.

Some school leaders are cutting recess, saying it is a waste of time--valuable time that could be used for instruction and improving student achievement. "That is so contrary to theory and data. There's no research or theory to suggest that getting rid of recess is good for student achievement," Pellegrini says. "If they say they have evidence that it improves achievement, ask to see it or where it has been published." School superintendents and school boards are also making decisions to cut recess for political reasons, Pellegrini says. "If you look at the way school superintendents operate, those positions are political jobs," he says. "For them, it's good political fodder to get rid of recess because they think it shows that 'We mean business.'" Decisions relating to schools should be based on the research and knowledge of people who know schools, Pellegrini adds, not because it makes for good political sound bites. Recess can be a nuisance for administrators because of possible lawsuits related to playground injuries and because teachers don't like it--they don't like doing recess duty, he says. Administrators and teachers who view recess this way fail to see that recess time is its own classroom, Pellegrini says. "The way young people learn to interact with peers is by interacting with their peers and the only place this is allowed to happen in schools is at recess," he said. "They don't learn social skills being taught lessons in class." If adults step back and think about the recess issue, most realize that everyone needs breaks to do well at work, Pellegrini says. In fact, all kinds of animals do better at tasks if a large task is broken down into parts with breaks. These breaks distribute the effort of learning across the tasks, rather than massing it into one session, he says. For example, researchers in one study gave tasks to a variety of research subjects, including pigeons, young children, and senior citizens. In all cases, the subjects learned better with breaks throughout the task. "Breaking it up maximizes learning," Pellegrini says. "Students are more attentive after recess than before recess." Another reason school administrators give for cutting recess revolves around bullying. In fact, just this week, a middle school principal in China, Maine, cut recess for seventh- and eighth-graders in an effort to stop bullying. Cutting recess is not the answer, according to Pellegrini. "Bullying occurs when the playground is not well supervised and research shows that less than two percent of the total behavior on the playground is aggression," Pellegrini says. Through his research Pellegrini has found that recess is an easy mark for elimination because children don't have as much power to advocate on their own behalf. "Frankly, kids are easy targets because schools can take something away from them and they can't make their voices heard," Pellegrini says. Parents wanting to save recess can turn to Pellegrini's book, written for all audiences, not just educational practitioners. While the book is reader friendly, Pellegrini's research is detailed in the appendix, so that it also meets the needs of practitioners, he said. Pellegrini suggests that parents need to speak up in order to save recess. "Parents need to hold their school superintendents and school boards accountable," he says. "If school leaders want to eliminate recess, ask them to show the data that supports such a decision."