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Rethinking Recess, Part I

What happens at recess can negatively (or positively) affect a child as much or more than what happens in academic settings throughout the rest of the school day.
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As summer approaches, I am reminded once again that our school system is outrageously based on the outdated agrarian system where children were excused from school during the warm months to help their parents tend the farm. Scrambling on my computer to find activities to keep my children occupied for three months, I look out onto my deck which I have adorned with flowers, none of which my children have ever come near even after begging them to "just at least smell them! Please."

So much for an agrarian family.

Every year my children and the majority of the nation's children get a 3-month summer break to "tend to the farm." According to the National Association for Year Round Learning, NAYRL, there are 3-thousand "year round" schools nationwide, public, private and charter, that no longer follow the 9-month long, agrarian calendar.

This fact got me thinking about the other school "habits" we have found hard to break.
Studies show that children learn better when they move -- physically move (which also happens to address the nation's growing obesity problem) -- as they learn, yet the majority of our schools follow the traditional style of learning: teacher in the front of the classroom, children sitting at desks, with "stop moving Johnny ... And sit down, I won't say it again!" reverberating off elementary school walls throughout the United States. Still, the system remains virtually unchanged.

Taking a look at recess, a.k.a., the time in the day when teachers get a break from students unless they get stuck with recess duty, we see that we are rooted in tradition there too. Recess is a post-lunch ritual in most U.S. schools; but, a pilot program in Arizona showed that not only did children eat a more nutritious lunch and drink more water when the school held recess before lunch, but also teachers gained an additional 15 minutes of teaching time when they returned to their classrooms because children settled down faster when they played first then ate lunch. Despite the results of this pilot program, the majority of schools in the United States still hold lunch first.

Recess, is also traditionally considered a break from the structure of the classroom. Unlike PE, where children also run and jump, there is no agenda for recess, there is no unit that must be covered or physical tests passed. Recess is a free-for all. Taking a look at the recess Petri dish, though, we see gads and gads of bacteria growing: bullies and victims, social anxieties and lifelong emotional scars. While unstructured time works for the majority, for the socially awkward - the bully as well as his victim - recess can be a nightmare.

If you were one of those people who "failed" at recess, you know what I'm talking about.

In "Everyone Loves the Weird Kid," a recent article in the New York Times television section, the break out star of the ABC sitcom, "The Middle," is 11-year-old Atticus Shaffer who plays the quirky Brick. 2010-06-09-images.jpeg In real life, the young actor is apparently still haunted by his past experiences with recess. While talking about his new, fabulous career on television, he told the NYT, "I feel extremely blessed to be on TV. It's a hard job, but real life is harder. Truth be told, playgrounds can be war zones."

Each week, seven million viewers tune in to see just what odd thing Brick will do: put ketchup packets in his pockets because they "soothe" him, speak in a Scottish accent for no particular reason or talk to his backpack and the viewers love him for his quirkiness.

In real life, kids like Brick are treated poorly by their schoolmates, tormented, beaten up, mocked teased or just plain ignored.

"They are completely on their own at recess," says Dr. Ellen Dye, a Clinical Psychologist in Bethesda, Maryland. 2010-06-09-Seefullsizeimage.jpeg"The child who is socially or physically lacking stands out at recess and that child's feeling of isolation is a big problem. Recess confirms feelings of inadequacy and the child experiences pain; pain in a social situation during the main interaction period of the day. It's toxic and these children dread recess it all day long."

Mark Sickel knows this.

Still reeling from his own days on the playground decades ago, Sickel now runs Fitness for Health, a DC-area therapeutic exercise and fitness company for children with special needs as well as athletes and everyone in between. He is calling for a recess-makeover, not unlike the Arizona initiative that flip-flopped lunch and recess.

The concept -- that is, the definition -- of recess, Sickel says, needs to be rewritten. Recess is not, according to Sickel, a throw-away class period. Actually, what happens at recess can negatively (or positively) affect a child as much or more than what happens in academic settings throughout the rest of the school day. "Recess plays an incredible role in the confidence and self esteem of kids," says Sickel. "Because it is unstructured, there are kids who look to pick on weaker kids, it's vultures and falcons searching and seeking prey. For the kids who are picked on, the negative impact overflows into their whole life. Their anxiety levels go up, they become insecure and they exhibit a decrease in academic performance which channels into a further hindrance in their social performance."

Dr. Ellen Dye agrees. "With a little bit more structure a lot of them can become more social and find their way."

Before you get your hair up and read this as a call for recess to go academic, rest assured that's not where this is going. Sickel is not suggesting that any child's recess freedoms be taken away. He says that, yes, recess should remain unstructured. After all, some children excel at unstructured; however, for many others, the recess break is the most feared time of the day, an anxiety-provoking period that sends countless kids to the nurse's office, not to mention the shrink. Recess is emotionally unhealthy for them and Sickel has a plan to help them, a plan that tackles both the mental and physical aspects of recess, a plan that teaches the two ends of the typical classroom construct, jock and nerd for lack of better terms, to work together and learn the basic life lesson of conflict resolution.

In Rethinking Recess Part II, we'll explore Sickel's ideas and see the results of his recess experiments.