Beyond the classroom: Schools find value in recess

September 20, 2016

Playing outside isn’t all fun and games. It’s also a vital part of education.

Educators say recess offers a wealth of benefits for growing minds and bodies. Regional elementary schools offer at least one longer recess, and most have multiple breaks throughout the day.

Even Common Core, the new teaching standards generating both praise and criticism at the national level, has benefited from breaks. Educators say, despite some public concerns, Common Core and standardized testing have not cut down on recess.

Marlena Fast plays during recess time at Westside Elementary School.

Active learning

Silas Johnson walks across a beam during recess at Westside Elementary School.

Lake Delton Elementary School Principal Carol Coughlin said her school’s goal is to make sure the students are moving at least three times every day.

“Our school district is promoting active learning,” said Coughlin, who has been with Lake Delton for 21 years.

She noted that recess and gym aren’t the only times children are invited to get up and move. Many teachers encourage participation and activities in their classrooms. Some offer educational games or stories.

Recess not only helps children burn off energy, but also allows them to develop social skills.

“Kids need to get outside and play and learn how to get along with each other,” Coughlin said.

Matt Peetz, associate principal at Pineview Elementary School in Reedsburg, agrees recess is more than just a chance to exercise. Creative play helps children learn to understand each other. He said it’s important for kids to learn how to interact without someone always present to guide them or intervene.

Recess may help in the discipline department, said Paul Bierman, principal at Westside Elementary School in Reedsburg. Children who have enough physical activity and mental relaxation are less likely to fidget and be overly talkative in the classroom.

He added that kids also feel better when they’ve had a chance to let off some steam and have fun with their peers.

“The most important thing is that they get outside and play with their friends,” he said.

Chanda Kulow, principal at Bridges Elementary in the Sauk Prairie School District, said multiple break times and recesses let kids decompress while fostering imagination and creativity. They also learn complex social skills such as negotiation and persuasion.

If one child wants to play a game and another doesn’t, it’s up to the first child to either convince the other to play or for the two to compromise.

She said recess also makes sense from a mental and physical perspective. Everyone needs some down time regardless of age. For older people that may mean checking social media, going out to lunch or having a cup of coffee.

“Kids need breaks just like adults need breaks,” she said.

Children play during recess at Grand Avenue Elementary School in Prairie du Sac.

Leading by example

Kimora Baetje climbs playground equipment during recess at Westside Elementary School.

Students aren’t the only ones who benefit from a break for physical activity.

Coughlin said staff is active during break time. Many go walking or do yoga. The district also offers wellness programs — including biometric testing.

That kind of leadership is integral to tackling one of the country’s greatest health problems, childhood obesity. During its last community needs assessment, Reedsburg Area Medical Center found youth obesity is one of the most concerning issues for the region.

The nonprofit collaborated with other area hospitals, the UW-Extension in Sauk County and the Sauk County Health Department, to generate the report, said Jodie Molitor, volunteer and community relations coordinator at Reedsburg Area Medical Center.

At the county level obesity has increased from 28 percent in 2010 to 33 percent in 2015, according to the study.

Recess is one of the many ways to combat youth obesity. Molitor couldn’t speak from a local perspective, but said recess faces cutting across the country. Schools may feel pressured to trim from breaks to allow more time for classroom instruction.

However, research shows recess is an integral part of a student’s academic life. Children who don’t get enough exercise are not only more likely to gain weight, they also struggle to stay focused in the classroom. They may not be able to stop talking or sit still.

Children also sleep better when they have physical activity during the day, Molitor said. Too little exercise results in irritability and lack of focus due to little or poor sleep.

Students benefit most when they see adults making wise choices. Molitor said parents who want children to stay active need to move themselves. They also need to be smart about what they eat and how they allocate their time. Adults who spend too much time in front of a screen or eat junk food are more likely to pass that behavior on to their children.

Exercise has been proven to relieve stress in adults and, for kids, and recess is just as beneficial. Children enjoy playing on the equipment or the sandbox as well as with basketballs, bubbles, chalk and hula hoops, said Salina Thistle, principal of Woodridge and Endeavor Elementary Schools in the Portage Community School District.

She said recess provides an abundance of benefits ranging from motor skills development to mental sharpness.

“Students are able to focus and learn new skills when their bodies are relaxed,” she said.

Eli Shanke, left, of St. Patrick’s School in Mauston tries his hand at hopscotch during recess while Wyatt Luxton looks on.


Kayleigh Ferguson hangs from a bar on the playground during recess at Westside Elementary School.

Some parents and residents to question the impact standardized testing has on break times. Educators say testing has not affected children from a recess standpoint.

The testing doesn’t take effect in Wisconsin until third grade. In those cases, teachers make sure their students have enough breaks during the day. Thistle said educators are great at getting to know their students and adapting their schedules to fit the classroom.

Like standardized testing, Common Core has generated discussion and debate across the U.S. This rigorous formula aims to make sure all students meet specific benchmarks in English and math by certain grade levels. These skills are also tied to social studies and science.

Recess advances the goals of Common Core, even at the kindergarten level. Kulow said communication and language are key components of Common Core and recess provides ample opportunities for children to practice what they’ve learned.

Youngsters swarm toward the dual slides on Spring Hill School’s playground in Wisconsin Dells.

Learning from others

There is no one-size-fits-all model for recess, and schools across the globe have experimented with different kinds of recreation. It’s been interesting to follow those practices, said Tammy Hayes, principal at South Elementary School in Reedsburg and Loganville Elementary.

She said LIINK is one of the more interesting projects taking place. The initiative, championed through Texas Christian University, supports increasing physical activity and recess time while restructuring the school day to have less time in the classroom and more time to play and be creative. The formula says children should have four 15-minute breaks each day, with two before, and two after, lunch.

LIINK also focuses on character development, and recess is one avenue where children can practice what they have learned. Hayes said recess offers many social opportunities for children to interact in ways they wouldn’t inside the classroom.

Making sure to have some exercise time, like these students at Grand Avenue Elementary School in Prairie du Sac, is an important part of learning for children.

Dealing with weather

Julien Pierucki makes his way across playground equipment during recess at Westside Elementary School.

Mother Nature hasn’t held back the rain this September. So far the area has received so much precipitation that it has caused flooding, which affected some homeowners, businesses and schools.

Even after the skies clear, school officials have to be careful when sending kids outside. Muddy, soggy ground isn’t the best for active feet.

When rain strikes, students are given a blacktop-only recess, said John Blosenski, principal at Al Behrman Elementary School with the Baraboo School District.

Students will only go outside if it’s lightly raining. If there’s a downpour, the students stay inside, he said.

Al Behrman doesn’t have a gym available for recess, so educators have to get creative with recreational time. When recess can’t be held as usual, teachers will open their classrooms for board games, assorted activities and dance games on Nintendo Wii.

The goal is for students to have at least 45 minutes of recess each day. Blosenski said some teachers will offer impromptu breaks if they feel their students need a breather, or “brain break.”

He said recess is too important to cancel.

“It lets (students) be kids and get outside and play,” he said.

St. Patrick’s School students in Mauston play four square during recess.

“Brain breaks” are used in just about every school in the area, including West Side and Grayside elementary schools with the Mauston School District. Principal Lindsay Jacobs said 5-minute breaks work in conjunction with recess to improve cognitive, social and physical skills.

She said recess is essential for breaking up the heavy academic parts of the day. Brain breaks are used at random when students just need to get up, stretch and move around a bit.

Recess doesn’t stop even when the snow flies either. Numerous schools still schedule outdoor time for their students.

Children love sledding and playing in the snow, Thistle said. If the temperature or wind chills fall below zero the students stay inside to play games, read, do puzzles, color, build with Legos, dance, watch a G-rated movie or exercise to activities on gonoodle.com.

Coughlin said her students may not have access to a good sledding hill but that doesn’t stop the kids from making some admirable snow forts.

If it’s too cold they will stay inside and play in the gym.

Open gym is also a possibility at Bridges Elementary. Kulow said teachers may have recess in the classroom if it’s too chilly outside.

Otherwise the kids aren’t afraid to head outdoors.

“We still have recess. It’s Wisconsin,” she said.