Forget Drill-and-Kill: Freeze Tag Might Be the Real Key to Student Achievement

The pressure to boost test scores has led many school districts to cut playtime, but a growing movement to restore recess is fighting back.

(Photo: Michael DeLeon/Getty Images)

Oct 30, 2014· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It’s a problem educators have grappled with for a decade: how to prepare academically lagging American schoolchildren to compete with their better-educated global peers. While some policy makers believe more classroom time is the answer, a small but growing coalition says the solution lies in freeze tag, hopscotch, and rock-paper-scissors.

Advocates of the movement to restore recess believe that at least 30 minutes of outdoor play for elementary school children in fresh air—combined with age-old games such as kickball or hide-and-seek—can promote learning in the classroom and boost student test scores.

And they’ve had some success. Backed by academic research, grassroots campaigns in cities including Chicago and Seattle have stressed the importance of preserving—and in some cases expanding—daily recess.

“There’s an increasing amount of awareness of the link” between play and learning, says Jill Vialet, who advocates for recess through Playworks, her nonprofit company based in Oakland, Calif., dedicated to improving education through physical activity.

Once a staple of the elementary school day, recess time has faded nationwide. Roughly 40 percent of school districts around the country allot less time for outdoor play than they did a decade ago, reports District Administration, an online magazine for educators. Under pressure from initiatives such as No Child Left Behind, school administrators have subtracted recess time and added it to the classroom—a trend that, according to the magazine, resulted in one Massachusetts district cutting recess to just 10 minutes a day and new schools being built without playgrounds.

The vanishing-recess problem is acute in poor, largely minority communities where safety concerns and steep academic challenges often trump students’ need for fresh air and sunshine. According to the Center for Advancing Health, children at underserved schools had 25 fewer minutes per week of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity during school than children at wealthier schools.

But kids in more affluent areas face the same problem for opposite reasons, said Vialet. Parents tend to overschedule their children—school, soccer practice, music lessons, homework—leaving out critical time for free play, she said.

“It’s shocking” how much has changed, Vialet said. “When I grew up, I got to play outside all day [in summer] and after school. I came to school knowing how to get a game going, how to keep a game going, and how to choose up sides,” a skill many of today’s children haven’t learned.

As education stakes become higher, teachers, school administrators, parents, and children all must balance competing demands for academic achievement. Yet several studies have shown that recess can make it easier for both teachers and kids in the classroom.

A 2009 study by researcher Romina Barros of Einstein College in New York City compared a group of third graders who got at least 15 minutes of recess each day with a group that didn’t. Kids who got to play, she concluded, behaved better in class than the kids who did not. A 2011 study by the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago linked the curtailing of recess to chronic obesity in poor neighborhoods, where children entering school are 22 percent heavier than the national average.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently released a policy statement declaring that recess provides “learning opportunities not found elsewhere in school curriculums, not even in physical education classes.” Going a step further, the AAP argued strongly against withholding recess as punishment, “as it serves as a fundamental component of development and social interaction that students may not receive in a more complex school environment.”

Perhaps most surprising, the National Wildlife Federation endorsed the “restore recess” campaign. In a statement on its website, the NWF declares that “as many as thirty percent of elementary schools—nine million kids—do not have daily school recess,” eliminating a “gateway experience” to healthy outdoor activity and discovery of nature.

Despite what some say is the frivolity of recess, parents and some educators are recognizing the importance of unstructured activity to learning, behavior, and health. Recess was restored in Chicago, there’s an online petition to bring it back in Seattle, and there’s pushback against a plan to trim outdoor play in one northern Illinois school district.

Vialet says she’s heartened that parents and educators are getting the message. In a guest editorial in The Seattle Times earlier this month, teacher Jesse Hagopian reminded readers that even Albert Einstein recognized that play is “the highest form of research.”

“Let our kids play,” he wrote.