Sunday, June 11

Teachers often cancel recess as a punishment. A growing number of states want to change that. 

This article about recess was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

In Florida, kids in a second grade class were told to walk laps during recess after no one confessed to taking money from a classmate. In Kentucky, a first grader who hadn’t been paying attention in class had to sit on a bench next to his teacher and watch his friends play. In Texas, after a few students misbehaved, an entire first grade class had to sit inside silently for recess.

Amid long, structured school days filled with academic demands, recess serves as a critical outlet and break for kids, according to pediatricians and child development experts. 

But, on any given day, an untold number of children in elementary schools nationwide have all or part of their recess revoked for infractions such as failing to finish their work, talking out of turn or not following directions. The long-standing and common punishment in schools occurs even though the practice flies in the face of considerable research supporting the importance of free play for young children.

Recently, there has been growing momentum to pass laws to protect recess time. Lawmakers in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Minnesota introduced bills over the past year to prohibit schools from withholding recess as a punishment. 

Children play during recess on the playground of Medora Elementary School in Louisville, Kentucky. Kentucky does not have a law protecting recess. Jon Cherry / Getty Images file

If successful, these states would go further than nearly anywhere else in the U.S. in banning the practice. Eleven other states and Washington, D.C. — as well as districts including the Austin Independent School District in Texas and the New York City Department of Education — have laws or policies that limit how teachers can use the punishment, but few have outright bans. 

Most states still allow the practice, and in places that restrict it, enforcement can be rare. Even in states that mandate physical activity or recess time, some parents report their children still sometimes lose entire recess periods. Overwhelmed educators have pushed back against losing disciplinary options or have continued withholding recess, with few consequences. 

The Hechinger Report spoke to 18 parents and students and collected 60 additional examples from parents and teachers nationwide via social media and public testimony, all detailing the stories of young students who lost recess time — including in states without laws addressing the practice but where official guidelines advise against the punishment and in districts where it is prohibited.

“When it happened to my child, my first thought was, ‘Is this legal?’” said Maren Christenson Hofer, who said her son, who has autism, lost recess more than once in kindergarten in Minnesota. “My second thought was, ‘Has this person ever met a child before?’”

Advocates for disability rights and experts in child development say withholding recess is a type of “shadow discipline,” informal punishments that are rarely recorded. Similar methods include silent lunches and making children stand outside the classroom. While other forms of discipline, such as suspensions and expulsions, can also be detrimental to children, they’re formally reported, with data that is transparent to parents and the public. 

But because shadow discipline methods aren’t tracked in the same way, it’s hard to know who receives these punishments or which schools use them most often. One survey found that 86 percent of teachers in the U.S. have decreased or taken away recess as a punishment for bad behavior.

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There are myriad reasons why recess continues to be revoked. Dealing with challenging student behavior can be exhausting for teachers who work long hours and, in many cases, lack support in responding to student misbehavior. In some cases, the directive comes from the top. School districts nationwide have made recess detention part of their formal discipline policy, which in many cases is included in student handbooks.

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Part of the appeal is that taking away recess can be a quick way to get some kids to comply, experts say. 

“I don’t really believe it’s the teacher’s intention to damage the children,” said Rebecca London, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the author of the book “Rethinking Recess.” “I think they use it as a threat because it’s the time kids want the most.”

Still, the practice has long been identified as harmful. In 2013 the American Academy of Pediatrics released a position statement on recess stressing that it “not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.” Recess, the group argued, is a “crucial and necessary component of a child’s development.”

‘Let them be kids’

In Midland, Texas, Rachel Davis said her two children have lost recess numerous times over the past four years. Instead of playing, they have been told to walk laps or have had to stay inside to finish work. 

“It’s so unnecessary,” Davis said. “Let them be kids.”

Experts say that while walking laps gives children an opportunity to engage in physical activity, it makes that activity a negative, rather than a positive, experience.

Withholding recess as a punishment can negatively affect a child’s relationships with teachers, feelings about school and sense of self-worth. It is a punishment that is especially stigmatizing and visible to their peers, child development experts say.

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“That has potential repercussions in terms of their willingness to go to school, their attachment to school and the benefits they get from it,” said Dr. Marc Gorelick, president and chief executive officer of the pediatric health system Children’s Minnesota.

Last September, when Davis’ 8-year-old son returned to school after recovering from Covid, Davis said he came home and had a “complete and absolute meltdown.” Her son told her he wasn’t allowed to go to recess or any special classes that day, like art or physical education, and instead had to sit and make up the work he had missed.

“This is absolutely ridiculous,” Davis said. “Haven’t we given up enough of our child’s day without having to fight to protect recess?”

Davis called the principal at her son’s school, who agreed to allow him to go to recess and specials. But two months later, in November, her son’s teacher emailed Davis and said he would be staying in for part of his recess to redo a final draft of his writing project because it was “not final draft quality.” Davis was furious. “He is not going to stay in nor is that okay!” she responded in an email.

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Elana Ladd, spokeswoman for the Midland Independent School District, said the district does not have a policy on withholding recess. The district follows state code, which requires elementary school students to have 30 minutes of physical activity a day, which could include recess or a physical education class. 

There have been efforts in Texas to legally protect recess. In 2019, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, vetoed legislation that would have required districts to create a recess policy that included required recess time and addressed recess withholding. Abbott said in a statement at the time that he appreciated the bill’s “good intentions” but argued it would have amounted to “bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake.”

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Image: An empty playground.
The playground of an east Austin elementary school where one parent said recess was withheld in her son’s second grade class if students did not finish work in class.Jackie Mader / The Hechinger Report

In the absence of a state law, the Austin Independent School District school board passed a policy in 2016 that prohibits taking away recess as a punishment. Yet nine parents in the district  told The Hechinger Report in interviews or messages on social media that their children lost recess or were told to walk laps due to forgetting homework or misbehaving in the years since the policy went into effect.

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Lisa, an Austin parent who spoke on the condition that her last name be withheld out of fear of retaliation from district officials, said her son had recess withheld when he was in first grade several years ago. In one case, her son told her that when he forgot to bring homework to school, he had to walk laps outside, a practice he said was common in his class. 

“That’s not appropriate,” Lisa said. “They’re not in the military.” Her son now attends a different school in the district where she said recess is not withheld.

Anthony Mays, Austin’s chief officer of schools, said he was surprised to hear recess was being withheld, though he acknowledged that the policy was not frequently communicated or enforced.

“We hope this is not a practice that’s widespread,” Mays said. “We value that opportunity for students to have that unstructured play time.”

In early April, after being contacted by The Hechinger Report, the district sent a memo to elementary principals to remind them that students should be attending recess, and directing them to immediately remind all teachers and staff of the policy. 

‘They’re not taught anything about recess’ 

Illinois is the most recent state to attempt to protect children’s recess time. A 2021 law made it mandatory to provide 30 minutes of daily, unstructured recess for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Unlike similar recess laws in Arizona and Florida, the law also prohibits schools from taking away recess as a disciplinary measure. 

After the law passed in Illinois, one teacher expressed her frustration in a public Facebook post. Recess, she wrote, was her “detention” time for addressing incomplete homework, behavior issues and makeup work with her students. “The kids have caught on pretty quickly,” to the fact that recess can’t be taken away, she wrote. “It doesn’t matter if they misbehave, it doesn’t matter if they don’t want to do their work.”

Experts say it’s up to school districts to make sure that teachers receive support if they’re struggling with challenging behaviors. Training in better classroom management practices could also stem turnover: Many teachers say classroom management struggles are a primary reason for leaving the job.

Across schools, there’s a need to reframe the way teachers approach classroom management in the early grades, said Cara Holt, a professional learning specialist for NWEA, a nonprofit focused on assessment and instruction. “It doesn’t have to be about consequences as it is about teaching them in that moment,” Holt said. That means making sure students understand why certain rules are set, “instead of being punitive,” she added.

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When teachers withhold recess, they might be acting against their own best interests. Extensive research shows why recess is beneficial: Children are more attentive and productive and perform better cognitively after recess. Time for free play helps kids develop social skills, communication skills and coping skills like perseverance, stress management and self-control. Elementary school principals have reported that recess has a positive impact on academic performance and that students are more focused afterward.

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“Play is how kids learn,” London said. “It’s their social time, emotional time, physical activity time, time to connect with other children, their time to be imaginative.” 

But these benefits may not be clear to all educators, especially when they feel strapped for time for academics and test prep.

“It’s not that teachers are actively taught, ‘You should take away recess as a good class management technique,’” London said. “They’re not taught anything about recess.”

‘I have really bad memories’ 

In Minnesota, the efforts to pass a bill banning the exclusion of students from recess have largely been led by parent advocates, including Christenson Hofer. Her son, Simon, 11, said when he was denied recess several times in kindergarten, he felt “just depressed.” The practice was also ineffective, he added, as he was “not likely to make better choices. I didn’t feel it was helping.”

The Hechinger Report spoke to two additional families in the district, and reviewed eight additional examples of parents who said their children have lost recess as a punishment in Minneapolis Public Schools over the past decade, provided as public testimony and letters in support of the new legislation. 

Image: Simon Hofer
Simon Hofer said getting recess withheld didn’t change his behavior and made him feel depressed.

Remy Fortuin, 15, remembers being taken to a special education classroom instead of recess as an attempt to calm him down when he was overstimulated in elementary school. “I hated it,” he said. “I have really bad memories of that room.” On the days he was held inside during recess, he would run out at pickup time like he was in a panic, his mother, Nikki Fortuin said.

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Crystina Lugo-Beach, media relations coordinator with Minneapolis Public Schools, said that the district’s wellness policy states that all elementary children should receive a minimum of 30 minutes of daily recess, and that excluding children from physical activity due to behavior is “in violation of the district’s behavior standards.” When asked how the district enforces the policy, Lugo-Beach said reminders about the wellness policy are periodically sent to school principals. She said the district is unable to verify the claims of recess being withheld.

On a Friday morning in March, Simon joined a virtual Minnesota House education policy committee meeting to support new legislation that would ban withholding recess. He didn’t remember what he did that made his teachers take recess away, he told the committee. 

“But I am autistic. So, there is a pretty good chance it had something to do with my anxiety,” he added. “I get anxious a lot in school. And sometimes I say things I shouldn’t when I get stressed out. Sometimes I need to move my body when my teachers want me to sit still.”

The bill received pushback.

“I know my grandson has had to stay in and miss recess because he misbehaved. You know, he got over it,” said Rep. Sondra Erickson, a Republican and former teacher, after testimony about the bill. She questioned what teachers could do about misbehavior if they lose the ability to withhold recess. 

Despite opposition from Erickson and several others, the proposed ban on taking away recess passed the education policy committee and has since been added to a pending education policy bill. 

Even if the ban doesn’t pass, Christenson Hofer sees a positive change already. 

“More parents are feeling empowered to talk to their schools about the practice of withholding recess and why it needs to come to an end,” she said. “Even if we have to take another run at it again next year, at least we are having this important conversation.”

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