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Let’s make recess great again

The schoolyard should be an exploratory classroom of sorts, not a holding pen for bored children.

The state of Utah recently ruled that recess now counts as instructional time during the school day. This is a hugely important decision that recognizes the value of outdoor play and the positive effect it has on children's learning in the classroom.

Recess is often the first thing to go when teachers feel pressed for time. But now in Utah they won't have to make that awful choice because recess is included in the “990 instructional hours [spread] over a minimum of 180 school days per academic year” (via ABC4). Kids will still have their play time, teachers get a break, and everyone regroups with better focus for the next lesson. It's an admirable and progressive decision, and one that I hope is copied by other states.

Reading about this ruling got me thinking about recess and the potential for learning that exists. While I'm all in favor of tossing kids outside en masse and letting them do their own thing, schools can encourage even more creative play and physical activity by branching out from the traditional, boring playground model. A few tweaks could create an exciting learning environment for kids.

Based on feedback from my own three young children (who frequently lament how boring recess is in a hyper-sanitized, safety-obsessed playground), as well as my own observations, I think schools could improve upon recess in the following ways:

1. More loose parts:

Give kids more stuff to use – tools for digging, logs for rolling, blocks for stacking, ropes for tying. No wonder they get into fights when they're standing around feeling bored and uninspired and cold. When kids are given a project (build an igloo! dig a trench! set up a tent!), they tend to cooperate more than they bicker. (Trust me, I know this from experience.)

Will they hurt themselves? Maybe, but I suspect there will be fewer incidents of complaining about minor issues because kids will be more distracted by their games and more likely to not care about physical discomfort. Plus, we really need to stop treating kids like “delicate morons“, as Lenore Skenazy once wrote so poetically.

igloo© K Martinko – Why shouldn't kids be allowed to build like this during recess?

2. More physical play:

I love the story about two Quebec schools allowing ‘rough play' zones where kids who want to wrestle and throw snowballs are allowed to go. Some kids really need that and can benefit from engaging physically with each other in a controlled environment. A modest sledding hill, built by the same plows that clear the parking lot after a snowfall, would go a long way toward entertaining and delighting kids. And it's no more dangerous or risky than a slide or play structure.

3. Fewer weather limitations:

Schools are far too quick to cancel recess if the weather is bad. Our school isn't supposed to have indoor recess unless the wind chill drops below -17C (1F), but it frequently disregards this. There should be more emphasis on dressing properly for the weather, crowdsourcing extra snow pants, boots, and rain gear as needed, and encouraging kids not to think of weather has ‘bad' vs ‘good'. It's just weather, and learning how to cope with it is part of life.

Utah's ruling is a great step in the right direction that is hopefully embraced across the United States and here in Canada, but it could be made even better by loosening the rules around playground play a little bit, and treating the school yard like a big exploratory classroom, not a holding pen.

The schoolyard should be an exploratory classroom of sorts, not a holding pen for bored children.