Caledonia wisely using research on recess

Joe Nathan
Center For School Change 

Remember recess?  Was it a relief?  Are your memories mostly about fun and games? Or was it sometimes traumatic, with kids picking on you or others? Turns out that there’s a lot of rethinking going on about recess. In some places, recess unwisely is being eliminated.

Fortunately, Minnesota district and charter public schools seem to be making use of some of the best research about recess. I recently surveyed 40 Minnesota district and charter public schools. Thirty-four, more than 80 percent, including Caledonia, responded. Literally every one of the schools has retained daily recess in their elementary schools.

Caledonia Superintendent Ben Barton told me that the elementary school has daily recess for 20 minutes, plus physical education four days a week. He explained, “It’s important to have recess. In other countries like Finland, they understand the importance of play.  Recess helps us optimize learning in classrooms when students have time to unwind and move around.”

A widely cited 2005 study by the National Center for Educational Statistics shows that about seven percent of all public elementary school first-third grade students don’t have any daily recess. This increases to 14 percent in elementary schools that serve 50 percent or more students from minority groups. Almost 20 percent of schools where 75 percent of more of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch don’t offer daily recess for their first-third graders.

Anthony D. Pellegrini, professor at the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota, is extremely critical of the “no recess” policy that some schools use. He explained, “No data has ever been presented” to show the value of eliminating recess. However, he cited “numerous studies” documenting that

• Having a break is very important.

• “By having a break, students learn more when they get back in the classroom.”

• Recess can help youngsters “learn and develop social skills.”

Pellegrini says adults who supervise recess should “minimize aggressive, anti-social behavior.  They should step in when they do see it.”

Some Minnesota districts are working with a national group called Playworks. This group has experience in 23 cities around the U.S.

With various government and foundation grants, Playworks trains people who supervise recess. Playworks also helps youngsters learn how to talk positively with each other and to resolve conflicts. Outside research of communities where Playworks has created programs shows that teachers generally think the program has:

• Reduced bullying and “exclusionary behavior.”

• Increased student safety.

• Reduced the time it takes to make a transition from recess back to classroom learning activities.

The study also emphasizes the important of implementing Playworks’ strategies carefully.  More information is available here:

Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota wrote to me, “The focus on pumping up test scores becomes counterproductive when it squeezes out activities like recess. Children, particularly young children, learn more when they take breaks and move around,” Dooher said. “Educators know this from experience and now it’s being confirmed by independent researchers.”


Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, [email protected]