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What really happens during recess?

Sherri Kuhn writes about raising teenagers, the perils of a clean home, wistfulness over babies, and anything else that makes her laugh (or cry) in the years between changing diapers and wearing them. With a son just starting college and...

Tales of an elementary school spy

Sure, academics are important — but what about recess? Most elementary students have two breaks during the day to run around, have a snack, play with friends and use the restroom. But do you really know what your kid is doing during this time?
Kids at recess

Our spy spent some time at recess to see who does what — and why this is one of the most important parts of your child’s day.

Most parents ask about how their child’s day was at school, but do you ask about recess? If you do ask, are the answers less than what you had hoped for? Recess holds the keys to so many different parts of your child’s day at school — squeezed into a few 15-minute intervals. Curious about what goes on? So were we.

The scene

Happening twice a day on playgrounds across the country, recess is almost as popular as the birthday kid with two dozen donuts. Students who can tell time are fully aware of how many minutes until recess, but the littlest ones are at the mercy of the teacher — or the bell. When the bell rings and the teacher dismisses her group you can practically feel the goose bumps. Fifteen minutes of freedom! The doors open and the students scatter… but where do they go and what do they do?

Spend a little bit of time around an elementary playground at recess and you will start to notice certain groupings and patterns of behavior that are common whether at recess in California or Wyoming. The players are:

The free spirit

See that boy walking the perimeter of the field? He’s a free spirit, as is the girl who is trying ever-so-gently to capture a ladybug in her chip bag. As the parent of a free spirit, you may have mixed feelings about the time she spends on the perimeter of the bunch. On one hand, your child isn’t getting pulled into the nastiness of cliques and bullies, but what about making friends? Rest assured that for most free-spirited kids, recess is a time for them to recharge their batteries. The distractions and routine of the classroom can be a bit much — and the freedom of 15 unstructured minutes to himself may be exactly what the doctor ordered.

The ringleader

You can see these kids a mile away — from the girl who seems to be captivating the other girls with her story to the boy leading the pack out to the soccer field. While adults are often praised for their leadership skills, children who are branded as “leaders” are often labeled as bullies. But the small scale of most recess groups allows kids who do have leadership skills to learn through peer pressure what works — and what doesn’t. The boy who encourages everyone to play soccer is learning the give-and-take of leadership, while the girl who pressures the others to shut out the unpopular girl may learn her lessons the hard way, when the group turns her out. Recess time for these kids is an important learning time as they hone their social skills.

The cell block kid

Call it what you will, but there are always kids who have to sit out their recess for some infraction or another. Some will be sitting on benches doing the math homework they forgot to turn in, while others are sitting against the building walls, serving sentences in five-minute increments. Parents whose children seem to be in perpetual time-out might consider conferencing with the teacher — including the student — and look for different ways to solve the behavior and/or assignments issues.

After a long period of seeing the same kids on time-out row, the other students almost always expect these kids to be “in trouble” at recess. Too many times on the bench may hinder your child's opportunities to work on social skills and build friendships.

The player

They run, laugh, squeal, play tag, share snacks — they certainly get their 15 minutes worth of glee. These kids may not even be able to tell their parents what they did at recess, simply because they did so much. These kids don’t always have a certain “group” they are with, and activities may vary each day, but rest assured that they are getting their fill. These kids really need recess time to get their “wiggles” out, to move and to let loose — so they can return to class more likely to focus and learn.

A word about snacks

Whether your child tends to roam the perimeter catching butterflies or is an intense competitor on the four-square court, most kids bring some sort of snack for recess. It’s a long time between breakfast at 7 a.m. and lunch at noon, so healthy snacks are critical to keep your child’s brain at high capacity all morning. But what to pack? Depending on how your child spends time at recess, tailor their snack toward the amount of time they will really have to eat it. Kids who can’t stand to waste a single moment of play might do well with a squeezable yogurt or a granola bar that they can eat fairly quickly and get back to the business of recess.

Our spy saw many wasted recess snacks thrown away, simply because the kids didn’t want to give up on their play time. Most teachers discourage snacks from class, so work with your child to come up with healthy pick-me-ups that they can eat in five minutes or less — and get back to their fun.

Time for recess and play is always in danger of being cut, even at the elementary school level. But recess time is important for your child’s well-being, social skills, relaxation and sense of self. Is your school cutting back on recess? Voice your concerns to your principal or school board.

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