It’s the part of the day kids live for. When the recess bell rings, they grab their coats and rush outdoors to monkey bars, foursquare games, and football fields, intent on squeezing as much fun as possible out of their scarce free time.
But the fun and games are more than just a welcome break from multiplication tables, experts say. In a recently released report, the American Academy of Pediatrics outlines the benefits of recess, saying it helps develop social skills, improves concentration and productivity in the classroom, and combats obesity by giving children an opportunity to move around.
In the report, the academy notes that recess time has often been cut to make way for more time in the classroom. Indeed, a number of Massachusetts school districts reduced recess time during the 1990s, when the state began requiring that elementary students receive 900 hours per year of structured learning time. But area education officials say that most schools have not cut recess since then, and some are even expanding it.
“We very much believe that recess is important in the development of children,” said Cheryl Maloney, Weston’s superintendent. “We feel it’s really important for kids to get out and run around.”
Weston youngsters are in the playful minority that continues to receive two recess periods each day, totaling over half an hour: 15 to 20 minutes in the morning and another 20 to 25 minutes after lunch.
Elementary students in Medfield get recess every day for 20 to 30 minutes, seemingly putting it in the mainstream among area schools.
In Wrentham, kids get a similar 20 to 25 minutes of play after lunch. Students in Dover get 20 to 35 minutes of recess a day, in Plainville around 30 minutes, and in Marlborough 25 minutes.
Medfield has begun a pilot program in its middle school, giving students there a 22-minute recess period each week.
“The day is so structured now for kids that a lot of time their social interaction is really structured around classroom time, and it’s very prescribed and not very free,” said Medfield Superintendent Robert Maguire, explaining the importance of recess. “The idea of putting kids in social situations where they need to manage their relationships with their peers, there’s a lot of research showing that that’s healthy.”
In fact, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, students see a benefit from recess even when they do not run around much. Recess, the academy says, makes children more attentive and productive even when they spend much of the time just socializing. Also, according to the academy, play at recess helps children learn skills like negotiation, cooperation, sharing, and problem-solving.
Alfie Kohn, the Belmont-based author of education books like “Feel-Bad Education,” said that kids would still deserve to have recess even if research did not show it to be beneficial.
“I would argue, even if there were no proven benefits, it’s just cruel to prohibit children from having some time to be active and to structure their own activities,” Kohn said.
The state has no guidelines at all for how much recess students should get, and Kohn said there is not any consensus on the topic. But, he said, some Asian schools give kids a 10- to 15-minute break each hour.
“It’s not just how much time total,” Kohn said. “It’s how many discrete opportunities they have to take a break from sitting.”
Norfolk schools went from two recesses per day down to one in the 1990s, and Superintendent Ingrid Allardi said that model is “probably here to stay.”
“In terms of adding a second recess back into the day, that would be difficult,” Allardi said, citing minimum mandated instructional hours.
Jeffrey Marsden, superintendent in Wrentham, said that education there has largely moved away from students quietly sitting in rows and features lots of opportunities for kids to move around the room and work together. Still, he said, recess provides an important break from the classroom.
“I still think it’s important for kids to get out and move around and get that oxygen in their brain,” Marsden said. “I think it’s great for them.”
In an educational world dominated by discussions about student achievement on standardized tests, school officials said they had no interest in shortening recess to get extra minutes for in-class learning.
“I don’t think five to 10 minutes a day is going to heavily affect test scores,” said David Raiche, superintendent in Plainville. “I think if you use your time efficiently, you’re doing OK.”
“We really work hard during the day. There are high expectations for our students,” said Theresa Nugent, principal of Dover’s Chickering Elementary School. “Because of that, we find that recess becomes really important.”
In its report, the pediatrics academy noted that some schools have begun “structured recess” programs, which it says sacrifice the notion of recess as personal time for children.
Officials at suburban schools west of Boston largely said their recess periods were unstructured, with kids given balls and other equipment but not led in games by adults.
But Max Fripp, executive director of the Boston branch of Playworks, a national nonprofit that puts recess “coaches” on playgrounds, said kids can benefit from some structure because kids today sometimes lack the social skills to organize their playtime without help.
“When I grew up, there were a lot of unspoken rules,” Fripp said. “Kids knew how to self-regulate their play.”
Another concern with unstructured recess is bullying, which school officials say they combat with measures like spreading adults around play areas and outfitting them with walkie-talkies that connect to the main office.
In a recommendation that sounds like it was lifted from a child’s wish list, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that kids should not have their recess taken away as a punishment.
“We’ve really avoided that,” Wrentham’s Marsden said. “We look for other ways to have kids do what they need to do, other than keeping them in for recess. So many kids look forward to that time. My son is in fifth grade, and he loves it.”