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Tom | January 3, 2013

A Discussion About Recess


2011468213678By Tom

A few months ago I was visiting a friend of mine who teaches high school English. We were in his classroom and he showed me his grade book. I noticed that in some of his classes, most of the students were missing most of their assignments. I asked him about this.

“There’s really not much I can do about it. I assign work, collect it, grade it and post the scores on-line. Some kids just don’t turn in their work. Other than giving them an F, there’s not much else I can do, since some kids simply couldn’t care less about their grades.”

I explained how things work in my classroom. I assign work and then collect it. If a student doesn’t have it, they do it during recess. Period. No questions, no yelling, no discussion. Their names go up on the whiteboard and they come back to the room after lunch to get it done. I’m in the room anyway, taking care of paperwork, and I don’t mind the company.

And if someone misbehaves or wastes time during the day, I put a tally next to their name on my clipboard. Each tally mark equals one minute of lost recess during our second recess, which we have toward the end of the day.

I use first recess to take care of missing assignments and I use second recess to take care of misbehavior. And it works beautifully. I have the best-behaved class in the school with literally no missing assignments.

But then I came across this article in USA Today. Basically, a bunch of pediatricians want us to leave recess sacred; don’t make kids do schoolwork when they should be out playing and don’t withhold recess as a form of punishment.

In other words, don’t do what I do.

I can see their point. Recess is an important time for kids to blow off steam, get some exercise, mingle, and just “be kids.” For most children, it’s their favorite time of the day. It certainly was for me, when I was young.

But pediatricians aren’t teachers. They deal with one kid at a time, for ten or fifteen minutes, with their parents in the room. They’re not trying make 25 to 30 kids work quietly at something most of them would rather not do for seven hours a day.

At a certain level, teachers need leverage. For those of us at the elementary level, recess gives us that. 

What do you think? 


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I blogged about a situation with a student who made a total transformation in his education and addressed this very idea. Here's a cut:

This is really a man and a fish scenario. Yes, I’d like kids to have recess. But in the long run, I’d like them to have choices for their future, not to be locked into a dead-end job because of lack of participation in their education. In the long run, kids who leave elementary school without learning habits designed for a successful future can count on a life of fast food and neighborhoods with unsafe playgrounds. So missing a recess for a few weeks to afford kids the opportunity to earn themselves a solid future? It’s a concession I’m willing to make.

Here's the entire thing if anyone is interested (Tom, please delete if this isn't OK with you!):

The last two comments make me think of homework's place in a child's education at all - but I need to think more about that.

I also read that USA article because a friend of mine is struggling with the fact her son's teacher has removed a recess in order to have more seat time. Second graders are expected to sit for long periods of time writing or reading, and there are starting to be (surprise!!!!) some behavior issues. I've been reading up on the importance of recess, and I think it's a big mistake to expect very young children to spend huge chunks of time sitting.

That being said, it's all about moderation. Losing a recess every once in awhile, or having a student spend a few minutes completing an assignment, are hardly torture to a young body and can teach important lessons about time management and prioritizing.

I think the most important part of any teacher's system is communication with the students - what's going to happen, why will it happen, what does it all mean?

Good question, Chelsea-

My policy teaches most of the students to be accountable for doing their homework. But since they're only fourth graders, most of them still need parental support to go the last mile and be completely consistent. That said, I have one or two students who spend part of almost every recess inside doing their homework because they have parents who are either unwilling or incapable of providing that support.


I am curious how many of the same kids don't do homework in middle and high school?
I teach middle school, with no leverage as far as recess. I have 1 class (mostly students who struggle) that I have pretty much stopped assigning homework to, because at least half of them simply make no attempt. It then becomes a waste of time to go over the next day.
Does what you're doing have a long-term affect, or does it just encourage your students to do their homework in your class? If it meant that they then learned the habit of doing their homework in the future, I would be all for it.

I hear you, Connie; "You can do it now, or due it during recess. Your choice."

Tom,I have used a similar policy in the general education and special education settings. I put the ball in their court. How my students use their recess time is up to them individually ... in class doing missing work or on the playground.

You're right, Maren; in an ideal world we wouldn't need any leverage. Everything would be engaging to everyone and no one would not want to do any assignments.

Our world, however, is far less than ideal in so many ways...

A tough question, Tom! I think one of your key sentences is "They're not trying to make 25-30 kids work quietly at something most of them would rather not do for seven hours a day."

As long as that is the case, then, yes, teachers are going to need some "leverage," as you put it. I teach some classes that are required, and I teach some other classes that students choose to take. There's a big difference--much less leverage is needed in the elective classes.

Can teachers change this? Should our classrooms be more student focused so that students "want" to do the learning? Yeah, that would be ideal, and we definitely can make great strides towards that. However, not all students are going to be interested in all areas of school, yet all students need to learn some basic academic concepts. We do need some leverage in order to ensure that this happens.


Tom, as I was reading your solution to missing assignments and misbehavior, I was cheering you on in my head. I think that your solution used with monitoring so that students don't spend every recess in the classroom is a good one.

I also agree with your points about pediatricians working with students and their parents on an individual basis. I wish we could be more like this, but we cannot be.

So, kudos to you for being willing to take the time that you have for quiet and paperwork to give to the students who need a little more guidance.

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