Give me a break: the argument for recess.
The authors recently had an opportunity to talk with a group of early childhood teachers who shared some of the stress they were experiencing Over and over, we heard accounts of how the curriculum and daily routines of the students and teachers were being affected by the need for students to reach annual yearly progress (AYP) expectations on standardized tests These teachers clearly understood that high standards were important, and it was clear that these teachers agreed that all children could and must learn; however, the learning environments in their classrooms seemed to have changed negatively. Nichols and Berliner (2007) have suggested that high-stakes testing does have a negative impact on both teachers and students. These authors discuss a phenomenon called Campbell's Law, which states that the greater the social consequences associated with a quantitative indicator (in this case, standardized test scores and AYP), the more likely it is the indicator will become corrupted and result in the corruption of the process it was intended to monitor (in this case, school improvement and student learning).
One of the changes that has taken place in many schools has been the increase in engaged time on topics that are to be assessed on high-stakes tests (sometimes referred to as time on task). Obviously, common sense dictates that if we want children to learn a skill, they need time to practice that skill. However, as Woolfolk (2008) and others have noted, spending more time engaged on a task does not guarantee an increase in learning Furthermore, some of what Nichols and Berliner (2007) call "collateral damage" to the curriculum can take place when important activities are removed from the daily routine in order to increase time spent practicing skills or learning information that will be assessed on a high-stakes test.
Educator Joe Frost has long argued that the emphasis on high-stakes testing has had a negative effect on all schooling for young children. Frost, Wortham, and Reifel (2007) discuss the important relationship between children's play and their total development. Many schools have totally dropped free play (e.g., recess breaks), because it was thought that such an activity took up valuable time needed to prepare children for high-stakes tests (Sindelar, 2002). The Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI), the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS/SDE), and the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) are a few of the national and international organizations emphasizing the importance of free play through recess breaks. Nevertheless, more and more school districts are electing to eliminate recess breaks, citing safety and behavior issues, along with time on task, as key reasons (Sindelar, 2002; Villaire, 2001).
Despite numerous arguments, no research clearly supports eliminating recess breaks (Jarrett, 2003) NAEYC and other related professional associations have long advocated for more appropriate scheduling, including times for breaks. NAEYC's Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997) provides teachers of young children with specific guidelines for creating optimal learning environments. Examples of appropriate practices for creating a classroom environment and schedule for 3- to 5-year-olds include the following:
* The environment is designed to support young children's physiological needs for activity and fresh air
* The daily schedule provides for alternating periods of active and quiet time
* Teachers plan extended periods of time for children to participate in play projects
* Opportunities for children to move freely and use large muscles are strategically planned.
These examples of developmentally appropriate practices clearly can be used to support the inclusion of recess breaks in the daily routine of young children Additionally, the authors include specific references for teachers of 6- to 8-year-olds. Bredekamp and Copple recommend that teachers of primary-age children plan alternating periods of physical activity and quiet time, although they are not as specific as when making recommendations for 3- to 5-year-old students. Although these guidelines have been widely distributed and well-known for several years, administrators and politicians tend to overlook such research and guidelines.
Research evidence also abounds showing that play is beneficial to cognitive development. Jarrett (2002) explains that recess breaks provide the brain with opportunities to create chemicals crucial for the formation of long-term memory. Pellegrini and Bohn (2005) build on Jarrett's argument by connecting it to Piagetian theory, which suggests that cognitive imbalance (disequilibration) through peer interaction facilitates cognitive development more than interactions between adults and children. Cognitive imbalance, Pellegrini and Bohn argue, is more likely to occur when children are allowed opportunities to exchange ideas with one another in natural contexts, such as they do in a free play, recess break setting.
A research project (Norvell, 2006) was carried out in a public school, 1st-grade setting to determine if the students' performance on a literacy task was affected by the timing of when students were given a 15-minute recess, free activity break. Specifically, the children's spelling and writing productivity, story retelling ability, and story comprehension processes were assessed to see if the timing of recess breaks made a difference in the quality and quantity of the children's work That is, did recess breaks immediately before their literacy lesson (as opposed to immediately after their lesson) have any effect on the students' performance on the given literacy tasks? It is interesting to note that the project had to be completed in only three weeks, because the school district had discontinued recess breaks and would not dedicate more than that time to a non-academic endeavor such as free play (recess breaks) for 1st-grade students.
The project began by randomly assigning 16 children to each of two groups; one group had recess breaks immediately prior to instruction, and one had recess breaks immediately after instruction. The children came from the three 1st-grade classrooms located in a rural school populated with highly diverse students All 32 students were administered the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT-IIIA) to determine basic language ability. The results of this test were used prior to the investigation in order to ensure that the two groups were equal, and to provide baseline information needed to ensure that all of the material taught and any directions needed to complete the assigned tasks would be understood
by the students.
Each of the 14 lessons taught consisted of one folktale read aloud to the students and one open-ended question, which was verbally asked. The students could respond to the question in written form, in pictorial form, or both. Some examples of the questions asked were, "What was your favorite part of the story?"; "What did King Midas learn about loving gold?"; "Why did Rumpelstiltskin want the queen's child?"; and "Why was the little owl considered to be good luck?" After reading the story (each of which lasted about five minutes), the teacher reviewed the events of the story to help students with comprehension The students then had 10 minutes to respond to the question on a blank sheet of paper.
After all data were collected, writing samples were evaluated for productivity as determined by total word count, conventional word count (i.e., number of correctly spelled words), and total sentence count A retelling rubric was adapted for use (Moss, 1997) to evaluate students' responses for content, clarity, and structure, with scores ranging from the lowest level (providing poor or irrelevant information) to the highest level (able to sequence the events in correct order and summarize most of the material). The data analysis provided a statistical difference between the two groups. The students who had recess breaks prior to their literacy lesson performed better than their peers who had recess breaks after instruction and assessment took place.
Implications for Young Children
Although this research project does not provide definitive evidence of the positive effects of recess breaks, it does provide evidence of the need for further investigation. Early childhood professionals have a number of ways to use information from this project to design their own investigations Such investigations would contribute evidence that would help to clarify how recess breaks would be most beneficial to the education process. Numerous questions could be explored in early childhood settings, such as:
* How often should recess breaks occur?
* What is the optimal duration for recess break?
* At what times throughout the school day would recess breaks be most beneficial?
* Which activities provide the maximum benefit during recess break?
* Should recess break activities be free choice only, or should some type of structured games and/or physical exercise be included?
* Do breaks need to be outdoors, or can indoor breaks be just as effective?
* Are breaks more advantageous for boys or girls, or do they benefit equally?
* What types of activities do children choose during recess breaks time?
* How do groups having recess breaks perform on standardized tests compared to those not having recess breaks?
* How do groups having recess breaks compare to those not having recess in regard to attention on task?
* How do groups having recess breaks compare to those not having recess breaks in regard to adjustment to school?
These are some of the questions that need to be answered to convince administrators and politicians that recess breaks do, in fact, have a positive effect on children's ability to achieve at high levels.
One of the first things early childhood teachers can do to support and encourage the inclusion of recess breaks in schools is to become more knowledgeable regarding the research focusing on the importance and effectiveness of recess breaks. The Internet provides a plethora of resources that can be used to educate oneself on the benefits of recess breaks For example, a variety of articles, press releases, and position statements from professional associations provide summaries of findings, along with resources for additional reading. Vito Perrone, in his classic A Letter to Teachers (1991), explained how important it is for teachers to become students of teaching and learning Obviously, this implies reading and discussing professional literature, but it goes much further. We are suggesting that teachers should engage in inquiry in their own classrooms to determine what is most beneficial for their children's growth and development In this case, turn the classroom into a laboratory where one can collect information on the impact that recess breaks have on student performance; this type of inquiry, or action research, can be both informative and engaging.
"Action research" is a term that is widely used today and can take many different forms. Specifically, action research refers to any question investigated by a teacher to determine ideas that will inform and possibly change future practice. The investigation, or research, occurs in the teacher's own classroom and focuses on questions that deal with educational matters (Ferrance, 2000). For example, in a district that requires a 120-minute literacy block with no planned breaks each morning, a 1st-grade teacher noted instances of children behaving in a disruptive manner after an hour of instructional time. The teacher believed the children were acting disruptively because they were not able to deal with the amount of time they were being asked to spend on literacy tasks. The teacher provided a short (5 to 10 minutes) break, when the children sang, participated in creative movement experiences, or engaged in some other type of physical movement activity. The teacher then noted the number of disruptive behaviors that occurred. Fewer instances of disruptive behavior were noted over several weeks; the teacher then had data to take to administrators to support a change in the schedule.
Teachers should join with parents to advocate for recess breaks as a vital part of the school curriculum Teachers need to educate the parents/families in their schools, sharing the information they have gleaned about the importance of recess breaks and how recess breaks are slowly being sacrificed in an effort to meet state requirements. Approximately "40% of the nation's 16,000 school districts have either modified, deleted, or are considering deleting recess breaks" (cited in NAECS/SDE, 2002, p. 2). Many families have no idea that recess breaks are being greatly reduced or even eliminated from the school day. It is necessary for teachers to become active participants of the parent/teacher associations in their schools. Families should be encouraged to join with the teachers to demand the establishment of school district policies that require recess breaks as part of the curriculum In an increasing number of school districts across the United States, vocal parents have been quite successful in getting the school board policies they want Remember, school board officials and elected officials will typically listen to groups of parents.
Early childhood professionals also have an ethical, moral obligation to become strong advocates for the rights of young children to have recess breaks during the school day. Adults take coffee breaks throughout the day; yet, young children, who are most in need of periodic breaks, get few or none. We often hear teachers say, "What can I do?" Alone, you may not be able to do much, but you can be the impetus needed to bring about change in your school or district. Involve the community in efforts to save recess breaks Invite a reporter from the local newspaper or television station into your classroom to share the action research you are conducting. "The Demise of Recess Breaks: A Trio of Local Moms Fights Back With a Little Book," an article posted on OrlandaSentinel.com (Postal, 2008), demonstrates how the press was used to widely publicize efforts to reinstate recess breaks in Florida schools. The three mothers cited in the article used a self-published and downloadable book in their attempt to bring attention to children's need for recess breaks. Actual photographs of a beautiful, well-furnished, empty playground were used to emphasize the tragic waste of both physical and financial resources. This little book attempts to bring to light two important issues. Not only are children being deprived of the opportunity to use this wonderful playground, but taxpayer dollars used to build the playground are going unused. Early childhood professionals could use similar strategies to share results of the action research being conducted in their own classrooms. Teachers can write a short article explaining the results of the action research projects, post it on the school or district website, and/or submit it to the local newspaper.
A research project was conducted to determine if 1st-grade students would perform better if they took a recess break before a literacy lesson instead of waiting to go to recess after the lesson. Once the data were collected and analyzed, it was found that students perform better if they have a recess break before their literacy lesson. Early childhood professionals are encouraged to do their own action research in order to convince parents, board members, and elected officials that children, like adults, need to take a reasonable number of breaks during the day. This article argues a point that many early childhood educators have understood since the days of Friedrich Froebel: Children learn better when they are given time to play and talk together.
Bredekamp, S., & Copple, C. (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Ferrance, E. (2000). Action research. (Themes in Education Series.) Providence, RI: The Northeast and Islands Regional Educational Laboratory at Brown University.
Frost, J. L., Wortham, S.C., & Reifel, S. (2007). Play and child development (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Jarrett, O. S. (2003). Recess in the elementary school: What does the research say? ERIC Digest. Retrieved June 7, 2008, from www.ericdigest.org/2003-2/recess.html.
Moss, B. (1979). A qualitative assessment of ... retelling of expository text. Reading Research and Instruction, 37, 1-13.
National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education. (2002). Recess and the importance of play: A position statement on young children Retrieved June 9, 2008, from http://naecs.crc.edu/position/recessplay.html.
Nichols, S. L., & Berliner, D. C. (2007). Collateral damage: How high-stakes testing corrupts America's schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Norvell, B. N. (2006). An examination of the effects of recess on first graders' use of written symbol representations. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama.
Pellegrini, A., & Bohn, C. (2005). The role of recess in children's cognitive performance and school adjustment. Educational Researcher, 34(1), 13-19.
Perrone, V. (1991). A letter to teachers: Reflections on schooling and the art of teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Postal L. (2008, April 21). The demise of recess: A trio of local moms fights back with a little book. Orlando Sentinel Retrieved June 7, 2007, from http://blogs.orlandosentinelcom/ news_education_edblog/2008/04/recess.html#more
Sindelar, R. (2002). Recess: Is it needed in the 21st century? ERIC clearinghouse/ http://eruceece.org/faq/recess.html
Villaire, T. (2001). The decline of physical activity: Why are so many kids out of shape? Our Children, 26, 7.
Woolfolk, A. (2008). Educational psychology: Active learning edition (10th ed.). Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.
Barbie Norvell is Assistant Professor, Early Childhood Education, Spadoni College of Education, Nancy Ratcliff is Assistant Dean and Director of Curriculum & Instruction, Spadoni College of Education, and Gilbert Hunt is Singleton Chaired Professor and Research Scholar, School of Teacher Education, Coastal Carolina University, Conway, South Carolina.