NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

With Recess In Decline, Some Schools Are Bucking The Trend

Christopher Connelly
Some students at Eagle Mountain Elementary School are having recess four times a day. Donna McBride, a first grade teacher, has noticed a difference in her students.

Turns out recess is so much more than just monkey bars and freeze tag. In American public schools, though, recess has been on the decline – edged out to make more room in the day for testing and academics.

There’s a counter-movement brewing, though. One Dallas school board member recently joined a growing chorus of recess advocates, pushing for mandatory recess.

And in a half-dozen schools in North Texas, recess has been on the rise.

That includes Eagle Mountain Elementary School. Recess at this Fort Worth school is pretty much the same as any school. Kids run and squeal, and others swing, while a half-dozen of their peers are bunched up on the slide.

Recess four times a day

Six-year-old Journey Orebaugh, running around in an off-white princess dress, prefers to spend her time playing family.

“You just get a bunch of people and just act like who you want to be,” she says.

Journey likes to be the mom most times, she says.

She gets more opportunities to role play because recess happens a lot here – four times a day, 15 minutes a pop, for kindergarteners and first graders.

Journey says it’s because the kids here are special.

Actually, it’s because Eagle Mountain Elementary is part of a project designed by Texas Christian Universitykinesiologist Debbie Rhea.

Inspired by Finland 

It’s called the LiiNKproject, and it’s modeled roughly on the Finnish school system, which consistently scores at or near the top in international education rankings.

“I went over there to find out where they’ve come in the last 20 to 25 years,” Rhea says. “Yes, their test scores are good, but they are also healthy in many regards."

Finnish school teachers have more freedom. Teacher education programs there are more competitive and teachers more highly paid. Rhea also observed more nuts and bolts differences. The biggest: Finnish kids get way more recess than American kids. They're spending 15 minutes of every hour in the school day -- up through eighth grade -- in unstructured play.

“I came back with the idea to bring recess back to the schools," Rhea says. "Not just one recess, but multiple recesses.”

Eagle Mountain Elementary, in the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD, started with the LiiNK project this year in its kindergarten and first grade classes – tripling recess time during the day. There’s also a character development curriculum for the kids – it gives them a chance to model out positive behavior, and practice empathy.  

Teachers: A transformation in the classroom

First grade teachers Donna McBride and Cathy Wells say they’ve seen a transformation in their kids.

They’re less distracted, they make more eye contact, and they tattle less.

Wells has noticed another difference: She spends less time sharpening pencils.

“You know why I was sharpening them?” Wells says. “Because they were grinding on them, they were breaking them, they were chewing on them. They’re not doing that now. They’re actually using their pencils for the way that they were designed – to write things!”

McBride says her students’ handwriting is better, and the content is deeper.

“They’re capitalizing at the beginning of a sentence, they’re putting periods at the end of their sentence, they’re adding more details,” she says.

The two have six decades of teaching experience between them. Wells says her kids are months ahead of where her class was last year at this time.

“When we teach them a new skill, it appears to me that they suck it in faster, that little sponge sucks it in faster,” Wells says.

“And they hold onto it,” McBride adds.

Breaks help kids, doctor says

Over the past couple decades, research has fueled an emerging consensus that recess is vital for successful child development.

Ohio State University pediatrician Bob Murray co-wrote a policy statement for the American Association of Pediatricscalling for more recess. He says advancements in brain imaging have actually shown that kids learn better after a break for physical activity and unstructured play.

“If you want a child to be attentive and stay on task, and also if you want them to encode the information you’re giving them in their memory, you’ve got to give them regular breaks,” Murray says.

Murray says kids with regular recess behave better, are physically healthier, and exhibit stronger social and emotional development. Still, academic policymakers have been taking it out of the school day.

“They want more academic time, they want more time to do the core subjects,” Murray says. “Under the attitude that more is better, they have pretty much carved away anything that got in the way of those minutes for teaching.”

Playtime builds confidence, resilience

Eagle Mountain is one of six North Texas schools in the LiiNK project. Schools in Oklahoma and California will join next year. The goal for Rhea, the TCU professor: 16,000 kids, from kindergarten to eighth grade, spread across 22 schools.

“We keep thinking as adults that we need to control the way they do things. I wish we’d get out of that,” Rhea says. “They know how to play, they know how to structure their own play, they need that time to grow responsibly. That builds their confidence. That builds self-esteem. That builds resilience.”

It’s all part of a growing realization, Rhea says, that kids just need to be allowed to be kids. 

Learn more

Learn more about the Liink Project.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.