CSC survey of districts & charters shows recess is being refined, not rejected

Remember recess?  Was it a relief?  Are your memories mostly about fun and games?  Or was it sometimes traumatic, with kids picking on you or others?    Turns out that there’s a lot of rethinking going on about recess.  In some places, recess unwisely is being eliminated.  But just letting kids out on a playground, or in a gym, can be a problem too.

Jane Strauss, a metro area parent reminded me of the importance of good recess supervision.  She wrote that “Recess is the worst time for many on the Autism spectrum…my son was bullied as the only Jew with the other kids playing keep away with his kippah and the school personnel doing nothing.”

Fortunately, Minnesota district and charter public schools seem to be making use of some of the best research about recess.  CSC recently surveyed 49 Minnesota district and charter public schools.  Forty-two, more than 80 percent, responded.  Literally every one of the schools has retained daily recess in their elementary schools. (see the end of this column for a list of the responding districts & charters)

However, a widely cited 2005 study by the National Center for Educational Statistics shows that about seven percent of all public elementary school first-third grade students don’t have any daily recess.  This increases to 14 percent in elementary schools that serve 50 percent or more students from minority groups. Almost 20 percent of schools where 75 percent of more of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch don’t offer daily recess for their first-third graders.

Anthony D Pellegrini Professor, Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota, is extremely critical of the “no recess” policy that some schools use. He explained, “No data has ever been presented” to show the value of eliminating recess.  However, he cited “numerous studies” documenting that

  •  Having a break is very important.
  • “By having a break, students learn more when they get back in the classroom.”
  • Recess can help youngsters “learn and develop social skills.”

Pellegrini notes that observations found “less than 2% of behavior is aggressive.”  However, adults who supervise recess should “minimize aggressive, anti-social behavior.  They should step in when they do see it.”

Emily Lowther, Senior Communications and Public Affairs Specialist for Minneapolis Public Schools affirmed that the district elementary schools do have recess.   The frequency and length is set at the building level.  She explained that “the MPS Wellness Policy and Guidelines recommends that all elementary school students have at least 20 minutes a day of supervised recess, preferably before lunch and outdoors, during which schools should encourage moderate to vigorous physical activity verbally and through the provision of space and equipment.”

Lowther also wrote, “MPS values recess! The research is clear – students who are physically active and eat well do better on tests, have better school attendance and are more focused in their learning. Physical activity is miracle grow for the brain. According to Recess Rules, only 36 percent of children meet the daily recommendation of 60 minutes, and recess offers nearly half (42 percent) of the opportunity available to promote physical activity among children during the school year.

In St. Paul, Toya Stewart Downey, Marketing and Media Coordinator for the St. Paul Public Schools wrote, “elementary schools have recess.  Exact minutes for recess is a site level decision.  Depending on schools they run from as short as 10 minutes and some have early elementary recess running as long as 30 minutes.”  She also pointed out that “SPPS recognizes the importance of physical activity, as described by the wellness policy and school board policy.  Exact wording of policy 533.00 can be found on the district website.  Specific wording includes that ‘students at the elementary level shall participate in frequent, active recess.’”

Several Minneapolis and St. Paul Public Schools are working with a national group, Playworks, to help strengthen and improve their recess programs.  According to Tom Evers, director of Playworks in the Twin Cities, in St. Paul, his group is working with Maxfield , Battle Creek, Wellstone Elementary Schools, along with The Heights Community School and Riverview West.  In Minneapolis, Playworks is helping Bethune, Bancroft, Anderson United, Anishinabe, Wittier, Northrup, and Pillsbury.  More about that group, which supplied the attached picture, later in this column.

Anoka-Hennepin, Minnesota’s district with the largest enrollment, also is working with Playworks.  Mary Wolverton, Anoka-Hennepin associate superintendent told me that the district recently received a Minnesota State Health Improvement Grant to help train faculty “to enhance students physical activity during recess.”

She reported that all 24 A-H elementary schools have recess, 25 minutes a day.  She explained, “Staff, parents/guardians consistently view recess as a necessary component of the student’s day. Brain based research, as well as the national focus on the need for our students to increase physical activity, supports a dedicated time for recess. And of course, our students would concur that recess is highly valued.”

Bill Wilson, founder and executive director of Higher Ground Academy in St. Paul, cited several times by the Star Tribune as a “beat the odds” school told me, “Body chemistry demands recess.  We have recess at least 15 minutes daily.  Students to get exercise daily – preferably several times a day.  It also helps releases pent up energy”

Mary Wolverton, Anoka-Hennepin associate superintendent told me that the district recently received a Minnesota State Health Improvement Grant to help train faculty “to enhance students physical activity during recess.”

She reported that all 24 A-H elementary schools have recess, 25 minutes a day.  She explained, “Staff, parents/guardians consistently view recess as a necessary component of the student’s day. Brain based research, as well as the national focus on the need for our students to increase physical activity, supports a dedicated time for recess. And of course, our students would concur that recess is highly valued.”

Helen Fisk, director of another “Beat the Odds” school cited by the Star Tribune wrote,  “We do have recess at Global Academy for students in Grades K-6 for twenty minutes everyday.  We value recess as a time for kids to get outside, play together and as a chance to have some physical activity during the day.  We do have set guidelines for behavior and activities for recess to make sure that the children play safely.  We spend time training our recess monitors so that things that often happen during unstructured times at schools (i.e. bullying) do not happen during recess at our school.”

Melody Tenhoff of Jacobsen Elementary in Rush City explained, “Jacobson Elementary still offers recess for students and we have never had a discussion about limiting this time.  We find that students truly need a time for physical activity.  In addition, so much of the students’ day is structured, that having an unstructured recess time helps the students learn to become self sufficient with their free time.  All students, grades 1-6, have approximately 25 minutes at noon that is in conjunction with their lunch.  Grades 1-3 take an additional 10 minute recess break either in the morning or afternoon, depending upon their classroom schedule.”

Jason Ulbrich, Executive Director of Eagle Ridge Charter in Eden Prairie wrote that recess for “k-5 approximately 20 minutes depending on the grade.  Grades 6-12 have recess every day for 15 minutes. I believe active recess is needed for grades k-5 and a social time for grades 6-12.  These times let students relax and develop healthy ways to interact with each other.  Much like adults who work eight hour shifts would get a lunch break and rest periods.”

Edina Superintendent Ric Dressen asked Chris Holden, principal at Cornelia Elementary School to respond for the district.  Holden wrote, that the school has daily recess of 20-25 minutes/day. “Our recess guidelines have not changed over the last 5 years.  Our practice has changed.  We do recess before lunch to encourage students to eat a complete lunch.  Recess before lunch has also been shown to reduce incidents at recess.  Finally, we have a contracted employee that does organized recess activities with students like: jump roping, 4 square, football, soccer etc.  Recess provides an opportunity for students to get fresh air, socialize, get large motor exercise and “reboot” their brains for an afternoon of learning.”

Cam Hedlund, Director of Lakes International Charter in Forest Lake says that the school does have recess, 20 to 25 minutes depending on the grade.

“Recess is as important as any other aspect of the student’s day.  As an IB school we believe strongly in educating the whole child.  Recess is the only place on a consistent basis that students are allowed with little adult interference to express themselves and develop appropriate interpersonal skills with their peers while at the same time burning off steam and releasing tension. The combination of the freedom to grow socially with watchful recess supervisors to help make sure that environment is safe is extremely beneficial to a child’s development.  The conversations that ensue when conflict occurs on the playground are as important to overall student growth as any of their other learning.

Hedund continued, “Starting last year we  moved recess from after lunch to before lunch. We have resisted this move in the past, in spite of the research listing the benefits of recess first, because of some scheduling conflicts and the lack of space for students to keep track of wet winter clothes during lunch. However, the benefits of recess first, expending excess energy, building an appetite before lunch, and not being anxious to finish lunch to get outside became compelling enough to make the change.”

Curt Tryggestad, Eden Prairie superintendent told me that the district’s elementary schools have daily recess of “about 15 minutes. Recess allows students to release some energy and to be active; gives them a short break from their learning.”

District 196 Director of Elementary Education Dr. Julie Olson responded that the district’s elementary schools all have recess.  They range in time from 10-30 minutes.  “Most of the schools have had it consistent for many years.  A few have adjusted the time of day (before or after lunch or not attached to the lunch time). With wellness and obesity being issues of concern, schools increasingly try to encourage active play during the recess time. “

Olson concluded, “Overwhelmingly, it is seen as important for cognitive and social development, essential for good healthy for their body and mind.  It builds stronger relationships and allows unstructured time for play.  It is seen as vital for students to refresh and has a positive impact on students’ ability to focus and learn.”

Deb Hinton, North Brank Superintendent reported, “We do have recess at both the elementary and middle schools.  The elementary recess is 25 minutes daily.  The middle school recess for 5th and 6th grade is 25 minutes. No recess beyond 6th grade.”

Darren Schuler, Principal at Delano Elementary wrote, in part, “our recess time provides students with a “mental break” as well as a great opportunity to connect with friends and be active.  With the amount of academic rigor compressed into a seven hour school day, students need time to unwind and release some of the pressure of the school day while on the playground…the playground also provides students with many opportunities to develop leadership skills by developing teams, following rules, and playing fairly.  So often in today’s society, our student’s athletic endeavors are planned by parents and are over scheduled.  Kids don’t have time to just be kids!”

Bloomington Superintendent Les Fujitake reports that the district has recess that “ranges between 15-20 minutes per day.  We believe recess is necessary in that it provides physical activity and promotes wellness.  Recess is also an opportunity for students to manage situations with peers, play together, solve disagreements, and manage friendships.  We believe these are life-long skills which are beneficial to students.”

Carl Schlueter, Executive Director of Beacon Preparatory School responded, “We are a 6th-8th grade middle school that began offering forty-five minute P.E. classes everyday last year for the health, social-emotional and academic benefits it provides–especially for early adolescents and in light of its place in classical education, which is our school’s model. We also have a fifteen-minute daily Advisory period with Wednesdays devoted to a physical activity.  We see it as essential to a well-rounded curriculum and a necessary component for a healthy and balanced life; we also have observed the evidence-based research done on the benefits of exercise with respect to the brain and academic performance as well as behavior and better self-regulation.”

Lisa Hendricks, director of Partnership Academy in Richfield, explained, “All of our students K-5 have 20 minutes of recess everyday.  Additionally, since our school day is so long (7.5 hours) the K-1 students get another 15-minute recess later in the afternoon.  Over the last 5 years our recess policy has changed in that using recess as a punishment is no longer allowed.  We believe that all students need to be active throughout the day in order for them to focus more during instruction…Taking away recess and using it as a consequence usually only makes the problem worse…”

“Recess is a critical part of our students’ day for a variety of reasons, but mainly for the benefits that happen in the classroom as a result of the physical activity. Additionally, recess helps students work on critical social skills such as problem solving, taking turns, sportsmanship, bullying, etc.”

Emily Lilja Palmer, Assistant Principal at Richfield Middle School wrote, “At the middle school level, I’ve found that 10 minutes is enough.  It allows the students who need to run the chance to do so but is short enough that there is minimal conflict.”

Wanda Renner St. Croix Prep Middle School Director wrote, “We can see a huge advantage with middle school students in that they need the physical activity to recharge them for the afternoon’s classes.   This is essential to us, especially in grades seven and eight since most of their core classes are scheduled in the afternoon.  There is definitely a difference in attentive behavior and focus when we have indoor recess due to weather and cannot get outside.”

Spring Lake Park Superintendent Jeff Ronneberg told me that each elementary school has recent from 15-25 minutes per day.  He believes, “Recess is important. Students need the time for physical activity and interaction with peers. Yet, recess is not a positive experience for all students, as they struggle with this unstructured time. So, each of our schools offer structured opportunities, and are consistently working with staff and students to make this time a positive, productive time….The physical activity, the fresh air, the interaction with peers, and the mental break are all necessary for kids as they go through a full school day.

Caledonia Superintendent Ben Barton told me that the elementary school has daily recess for 20 minutes, plus physical education four days a week.  He explained, “It’s important to have recess.  In other countries like Finland, they understand the importance of play.  Recess helps us optimize learning in classrooms when students have time to unwind and move around.”

Cambridge Superintendent Bruce Novak explained that the district’s elementary schools typically have recess for 25-30 minutes/day. He explained, “Recess is an important part of a student’s day.  It allows for a break in the increased academic demanding day, of more standards, more testing etc.  Students need to have time to physically move and engage in large motor activities not associated with structured school activities found n physical education class.  Recess is a great opportunity for students to engage and demonstrate the social skills and acceptance of others along with applying lessons from phy ed class into a loosely structured or student directed activity.”

Elk River Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Jana Hennen-Burr, told me that the elementary schools have daily recess for 15-20 minutes per day. The district has changed its approach so that recess is now “before lunch, so that when they come in from recess they are settled in and ready to eat and let their food digest versus racing through eating to get outside and play.”  She also explained, “Recess helps students with the need to be physical, get fresh air and work on their social and problem-solving skills.”

Vern Capelle, K-12 dean of students in Upsala wrote, “We do have recess for our elementary students, grades K-4, everyday for 25 minutes.  We recently changed our recess by taking our 5-6 grade students from recess and giving them 25 minutes of extra physical education each day.  The more structured setting has been a positive change so far.  I tend to fall in the middle in my opinion of recess…I believe that there needs to be time for social interaction and play, but on the other hand, the majority of our discipline issues occur on the playground, or as a result of something that occurred on the playground.  We have seen an improvement in this so far, which may be due to the taking the 5th and 6th grade students out of the recess group, but it is still to early to draw clear conclusions.”

Stephen Jones, Little Falls superintendent talked with two district elementary principals.  Those schools have daily recess of 20-25 minutes.  One principal wrote: “Recess is needed each day so the students have an opportunity to get a break from the classroom, get some exercise, and play with friends.  The unfortunate aspect is that recess has been impacted by increased pressure on testing.”

The second principal explained, “Recess is a necessary part of elementary students’ day.  They need an opportunity to be outside with their friends.  Most students engage in some type of physical activity during recess i.e. structured games like kick ball, dodge ball, etc. or using the playground equipment including the individual pieces of equipment such as jump ropes, hoola hoops, etc. …We have worked hard to teach playground expectations to ensure students show respect, responsibility, positive attitude and safety on the playground.”  These are skills that many students need to be successful during recess.”

Linda Madsen, Forest Lake superintendent wrote: “We do have recess in our district but the amount of time, whether it is before or after lunch, etc. varies at each building. Those decisions are made by the principal.  We have had discussions about recess and its value over the past couple of years. We have not come to a conclusion but are certainly discussing this. We do understand the need for physical activity for students and that can take place at recess and through physical education courses, as well as other activities planned by the classroom teacher.”

Steve Voshell, Milaca’s elementary principal explained that kindergarten students have a daily 30-minute recess, students in grades 1-6 have 25 minutes. Mr. Voshell wrote,  “I believe recess is beneficial for students. Because of school accountability (AYP), we’ve built schedules to take advantage of all possible instructional time. There is a definite sense of urgency in the school day. Students need some time to socialize and be active with peers.”

To help achieve the benefits of recess, Anoka-Hennepin,  Fridley Schools, Minneapolis, St. Paul and Rochester Public School will be working with a national group called “Playworks.”  This group has worked in 23 cities around the U.S.  With various government and foundation grants, Playworks trains people who supervise recess.  Playworks also helps youngsters learn how to talk positively with each other, and to resolve conflicts. Outside research of communities where Playworks has created programs shows that teachers generally think the program has

  • Reduced bullying and “exclusionary behavior.”
  • Increased student safety.
  • Reduced the time it takes to make a transition from recess back to classroom learning activities.

The study also emphasizes the important of implementing Playworks’ strategies carefully.  More information is available here:

Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota wrote to me, “The focus on pumping up test scores becomes counterproductive when it squeezes out activities like recess.  Children, particularly young children, learn more when they take breaks and move around,” Dooher said. “Educators know this from experience and now it’s being confirmed by independent researchers.”



Anoka, Bloomington, Caledonia, Cambridge, Columbia Heights, Delano Eden Prairie, Edina,  Elk River, Farmington, Forest Lake, Fridley, Hopkins, Lakeville, Little Falls, Milaca, Minneapolis, Minnetonka, North Branch,  Princeton, Richfield, Robbinsdale, Rosemount Apple Valley, Eagan,  Rush City,  Rushford-Peterson, Spring Lake Park,  St. Paul, Stillwater, Upsala,  (31)


Beacon Prep, Cologne, Eagle Ridge, Excell, Friendship Academy of Fine Arts, Global Village, Higher Ground, Lakes International, Partnership, St. Croix Prep, WISE  (11)


Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change.  Reactions welcome,