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Why We Need to Make Time for Middle School Recess

I started my career teaching fourth grade. Each day, my students had thirty minutes for recess and I watched them play, scream, sprint, and laugh—all the things growing children should be doing. Recess provided a way to burn off energy, but it was also a time to build relationships. I played four square, tossed a football, and walked the perimeter of the playground with them. My students and I knew each other better because of recess. Later, I moved on to teach at a middle school. The sixth graders had fifteen minutes of recess—barely enough time to stretch their legs— and by the time they reached seventh grade, recess was a thing of the past.

middle school recess

Recess ends after elementary school for many school districts. In our era of assessment and accountability, school districts look for ways to increase instructional time. Art, music, gym, and other “non-core” classes become expendable. Because these subjects are not typically under the microscope of state testing, they may be on the chopping block. If these subjects are being cut, where does that leave recess? No one would argue the value of young children being able to run and play, but if we value movement and exercise in elementary school, why do we feel it’s no longer necessary in middle school?

There are Benefits Of Recess

Some common myths about recess:

Many middle schools still have gym class. That should be enough.

Though physical education is important, how the time is structured is determined by the teacher. It also involves standing and listening, while recess offers freedom of movement. And in districts where middle school gym class is still available, it’s often an elective and many students don’t ever participate.

Kids go to school to learn, not to run around outside.  

One definition of learning is acquiring knowledge through experience. Students have many experiences on the playground. They work through arguments and disagreements. They create, debate, and wonder. Just last week during recess, a group of middle school students organized a “Cardboard Olympics” and created events using only cardboard. They assigned judges, teams, and competed. There was laughter teamwork, and exercise. They were learning in recess.

Kids can exercise and play sports after school.

Some students participate in after-school sports, but many do not. Some families can’t afford the cost of dance classes, football equipment, or other gear. And even for the kids who do play after-school sports, seven hours of continuous sitting each day is too long. In order to be able to focus on their work, they need breaks. They need movement.

Teachers and parents often forget how difficult it is to sit quietly all day. The older we get, the more sitting we do in school. By the time they reach middle school, most kids remain in their seats for the entire day. The active learning they experienced as elementary students is no longer the norm. Because of this, recess becomes even more important.

Five years ago, I helped develop a schedule for a new middle school in our district. The Delta Program is a small, democratic school where student voice, choice, and community are paramount. When I was asked about non-negotiables for our school, one of the first things I mentioned was recess. We carved out thirty minutes each day for recess and have never looked back. Our students value this time, and though eighth graders may not squeal with joy over a game of four-square, they still smile and laugh as they walk the perimeter of the field. However they spend their recess, no student is sitting for seven hours a day. It’s just not healthy.

If your school doesn’t offer recess, there are things we can still do to help get kids moving.

What Teachers can do:

  1. Build in a mandatory movement time during each class period. Take a mid-period break where everyone plays Simon Says, practices a yoga stretch, or walks around the building.
  2. Get creative with lesson planning. If students are brainstorming for a writing activity, have them move to the four corners of the room, jotting down ideas on different whiteboards or posters.
  3. Look into purchasing stability balls; these offer restless students the opportunity to move while working.

what Parents can do:

  1. Establish an after-school routine, where kids engage in physical activity before sitting down to do homework or play video games.
  2. Walk and talk. Instead of asking about their school day around the dinner table, hold the conversation during an after-dinner walk.
  3. Take on a new exercise routine with your child. Sign up for a fitness class together, join the YMCA, or challenge yourselves with martial arts.

Regardless of our age, we all must get out of our seats, take breaks, and move. It’s clear that if we want to nurture productive, alert, and healthy children, we need to make time in the school day for movement and exercise.

David Rockower

David Rockower is a teacher and freelance writer. He has published articles in The Washington Post, Education Week, and is a regular columnist in State College Magazine. With a sports-obsessed 13-year-old son, a spirited 12-year-old daughter, and a goldendoodle who looks like a muppet, he has a lot to write about. Twitter: @dgrock