Back to Recess in Chicago

For the first time in 30 years, kids are getting the opportunity to play during school hours.
Students take part in their first recess in Chicago. (Photo c/o Playworks)
Sep 20, 2012
is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, who writes about economic crises and political snafus.

School is back in session for thousands of Chicago children after a seven-day break for the teachers’ strike. Kids were most likely looking forward to seeing their friends and teachers again; after all, school had barely been underway when the strike started.

Chances are, they are also looking forward to something else: recess. For the first time in 30 years, schoolchildren in Chicago are finally getting the opportunity to play again. As part of the longer day Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushed for during the strike, recess is back on the roster as a way to help children cope with their studies and to burn off a little steam.

Now that recess is back on, Playworks has come in to help schools with recess time. The organization is a national nonprofit organization that provides safe recesses for children and training for teachers and staff who may have never experienced such an event. The organization operates direct service programs in more than 300 schools in 23 cities.

More: Chicago Teachers’ Strike Could Have Political Fallout in November

In many cities, recess was cut in recent years to try to catch children up on lagging test scores. Studies, however, show that recess is a proven winner when it comes to educating children both socially and cognitively. “Having recess is much, much, much better than not having recess,” Anthony Pellegrini, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, told Slate for a wonderful article on the subject. “That’s unequivocal, I feel. That’s a no-brainer.”

Playworks Chicago program manager Debbie Serota says the first few days on the reopened Chicago school playgrounds were eye-opening.

“I was welcoming third graders to recess with the program coordinator [on the first day],” Serota says. “I asked them, ‘Are you ready for recess?’ A boy responded, ‘What’s recess?’ It was so far out of the realm of possibility, they didn’t even know the word. Later I checked back in with that student, and he said, ‘It’s so fun! I made friends and played games. Recess is awesome.’ That’s the best definition of ‘recess’ that can be given.”

Serota says Playworks is helping out—from full-time work to training components—in over 40 Chicago schools. While the concept of recess sounds like child’s play, it’s actually something that must be closely monitored and engineered so that drastic problems don’t arise.

“There is just a lot of chaos,” Serota says of re-introducing recess. She says teachers and principals worry most about bullying. “There have been studies with principals across the country who say it’s the toughest time of the school day, when most disciplinary problems are likely to occur. Kids don’t know how to interact in a reasonable way. Kids don’t play outside in neighborhoods [in some areas] or have positive influences or leaders. Kids who are just thrown out at recess don’t know how to play games or don’t know what to do if there is not enough equipment.”

Serota and the other recess coaches train the adult monitors on how to help the students learn conflict resolution and to understand safe boundaries. But most important, Playworks helps teach children games that they can eventually carry on themselves.

“On the first day, the kids just stood there on the side—they didn’t know what it would mean,” Serota says. “Today, children are jumping and playing games. I asked a girl in fifth grade what she thought about recess and she said, ‘It’s a miracle! I’m eager to come to school now.’ ”


If you are interested in helping other students with hands-on activities inside the classroom, support these military kids and their inspiring teacher in Tennessee!

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