Parents, teachers at odds over withholding recess as punishment

by Laura Edghill
Posted 5/17/16, 08:25 am

Is withholding school recess for disciplinary or academic reasons worth it? Many parents don’t think so and are pressuring their states to require minimum recess time for elementary-aged children.

Withholding recess might mean “minutes on the wall,” where students stand against the school building, forced to watch their peers frolic and play. Or it might mean sitting in the classroom catching up on academic work. In either case, young students miss out on precious minutes of fresh air, unstructured play, and social development. 

Teachers have relied on the threat of revoked recess minutes as a valuable classroom management tool for decades. But at a time when those minutes are fewer than ever and U.S. children face unprecedented rates of obesity and diagnosed learning disorders, critics say it’s not worth the costs.

“Please do not take away this child’s recess,” Rhode Island pediatrician Gregory Fox wrote on one child’s note for school. It’s becoming a common phrase repeated on prescription pads nationwide in response to concerned parents pleading for doctors’ help as they strive to set their children up for success in school and life.

In a 2012 position paper, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended recess not be withheld for “punitive or academic reasons.”

The academy also concluded withholding recess impedes cognitive development and is fundamentally counterproductive to addressing discipline issues.

“A lot of times the kids who lose physical activity are the ones who need it most,” Emily O’Winter, wellness coordinator for Jefferson County schools in Colorado, told Education Week. “It can have a snowball effect.”

And while many local school districts nationwide have sound, common-sense policies on recess time, others do not. That disparity has frustrated parents and prompted many state lawmakers to attempt legislation that mandates minimum recess times.

Lawmakers in Rhode Island, Florida, and New Jersey have all debated this year whether to require at least 20 minutes of uninterrupted recess at elementary schools in their states. The New Jersey legislature passed a bill only to have it shot down by Gov. Chris Christie.

“That was a stupid bill and I vetoed it,” Christie told Fox News, adding that it represented “crazy government run amok.”

Rhode Island is poised to send similar legislation to its governor, who has expressed skepticism. 

“As a mother of young children, she knows how important recess can be to helping kids stay focused during the day” said Ashley O’Shea, spokeswoman for Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo. “But she does not believe that this situation is best handled by passing a law requiring a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Teachers also oppose statewide mandates, noting that taking away recess time can be a logical response to behavior issues. 

“We don’t want it to be impossible for teachers to use this tool because there are times when it is absolutely the right tool,” Cathy Campbell, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, told Education Week.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

<p> <em>The Associated Press contributed to this report.</em> </p>

Laura Edghill

Laura is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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