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New Research Brief Supports Recess for All Elementary School Students

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Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz are calling on states and school districts to require elementary schools to provide daily recess for all students along with detailed recess plans similar to teachers' lesson plans.

Through a research brief published last month, they also recommend that government officials and school leaders keep in mind the role recess plays in creating a positive school climate.

These recommendations align closely with the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendations, which call recess a "necessary break in the day for healthy child development," that "should not be withheld for academic or punitive reasons."

Edweek photo 3.jpgRebecca London, an assistant professor in sociology at UC Santa Cruz and the brief's principal investigator, thinks of recess as a classroom.

"It's a big classroom, and it's messy," said London. "It happens outside, and there's yelling. But it's a place where students can feel safe or unsafe, where they can make connections or not make connections. Some intentionality around it can go a long way toward building overall school climate, which is really important."

The research brief entitled, "Building a Culture of Health Through Safe and Healthy Elementary Recess," is an evaluation of Playworks, a nonprofit that works to bring play to elementary schools and after-school programs by placing recess coaches in schools or through training a school's recess team on how best to engage students in safe and healthy activities on the playground.

The brief focuses on the latter model by examining five schools' involvement with Playworks' TeamUp program during the 2015-16 academic year. Through this program, a site coordinator spends one week a month working with school staff to implement Playworks' recess model. The researchers also used findings from a nationwide survey conducted during the school year of about 1,300 educators at schools that implemented Playworks.

The program supports a more structured recess than you may remember, although London prefers the word organized. During Playworks' recess, students come outside to find equipment in place for several games, and they play with common rules that are agreed upon beforehand. Students also learn a method of conflict resolution designed to resolve disputes quickly, so they can return to play.

"These very, very simple organizational tools—the mapping of the yard, the equipment out in the right place and the common rules to games—that alone makes a huge difference," said London.

Within this model, students can play whatever they'd like, and all are encouraged to participate. Inclusion is a big part of the program, and teachers are even asked to join the fun.

"When adults are playing with children, they're modeling the way they want them to perceive play, but the kids, they just think it's fun," said London.

The brief also mentioned the importance of support from the school's principal and the district's leadership. It also calls for each school to have a dedicated recess staff. Most schools use paraprofessionals to fill these roles.

Through studying the five schools highlighted in this brief and the surveys, the researchers determined:

  • Recess goals should be aligned with schoolwide goals.
  • Recess must be fully integrated as an essential part of the school day.
  • Formal assessment is needed.

They also stressed that recess should promote social and emotional learning.

Teachers and administrators at the five featured schools reported fewer bullying incidents and fewer disciplinary referrals.  Students were also more active.

The brief was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Photo: Students enjoy recess through Playworks at an elementary school in northern California. (Anukul Gurung)


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