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Time out: Is recess in danger?

Threats to recess tend to get communities up in arms. For one thing, recess is tied to our own schoolyard memories and how we, particularly parents, view childhood. We generally don’t like the idea of stripping the fun out of school.

But there are other reasons to want to protect recess, too. The upward trend in child obesity cries out for more school time devoted to physical activity, not less. Some research further suggests a positive relationship between providing these opportunities and better student learning (Jarrett 2002). 

Child advocates view the threat seriously. As evidence, in 2006 the PTA and Cartoon Network led a high-profile coalition of education and health groups to launch a massive nationwide campaign to “rescue recess.” But is recess really in danger?

In this analysis we look at:

  • Good news first: Recess is still alive 
  • A possible threat: Shrinking minutes
  • The recess gap
  • How much recess is enough?

The Center for Public Education reviewed several data sources to find out if recess is becoming a relic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as recently as 2006, 96.8 percent of elementary schools still had regularly scheduled recess in at least one grade, and the average allotted time was 30.2 minutes per day (Lee et al 2007). To borrow from Mark Twain, reports of recess’s death seem to have been grossly exaggerated.

Even so, the pressure on schools to find more instructional time is real, and it seems to be leading many districts to shave minutes from the recess time they provide. In addition, children who attend high-poverty, high-minority, or urban schools are far more likely than their peers in other locations to get no recess at all—a definite “recess gap” that commands our attention.

Good news first: Recess is still alive

The vast majority of students in our elementary schools continue to get an unstructured break from their classwork every day.

  • Two different surveys, a 2006 survey from the CDC and a 2005 U.S. Department of Education survey, show that approximately nine in ten elementary schools regularly schedule recess (SHPPS 2006, FRSS 2005). This pattern holds for children in upper elementary grades even though younger students are more likely to get recess (see Chart 1).   chart1
  • The two surveys’ findings vary somewhat in regard to recess time, but both reported average recess time in the range of 24–30 minutes per day. As noted above, the CDC survey reported that elementary students were getting an average of 30.2 minutes of recess each day (SHPPS 2006). The Department of Education survey estimated that the average recess ranged from 23.8 minutes per day at grade six to 27.8 minutes at grade one (FRSS 2005).
  • Most students also get recess every day. The CDC estimates that elementary students have recess for an average of 4.9 days per week in the schools that report regularly scheduling it (SHPPS 2006). The U.S. Department of Education survey shows that 88 percent of elementary schools give first graders daily recess, and 83 percent provide it every day to sixth graders (FRSS 2005).

A possible threat: Shrinking minutes


Recess may be alive, but is it still kicking? The Center on Education Policy (CEP) has been tracking the effect of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) on various aspects of schooling. Its 2007 survey of school districts reported on NCLB’s impact on instructional and other school time, including recess.

  • According to the CEP, 44 percent of school districts in their survey had increased time for English/Language Arts (ELA) and math in their elementary schools and decreased time in other subjects since the 2001 enactment of NCLB. Twenty percent of all districts reported decreasing time for recess. In comparison, about a third of the districts—36 percent—cut time in social studies, followed by 28 percent in science (see Chart 2).
  • The schools that cut recess time reported reductions from 184 minutes per week pre-NCLB, or 37 minutes per day, to 144 minutes per week in 2007, or 29 minutes per day (CEP 2008). The post-NCLB average for these schools, then, is within the national average of 24–30 minutes per day for all elementary schools. This suggests that the schools cutting recess time had extra recess minutes to spare. Keep in mind, however, that averages can sometimes conceal extremes; some districts may have slashed recess altogether or to just a few minutes per day. In addition, this could signal the beginning of a downward trend that, if it continues, could put recess in danger for more children.
  • Districts with at least one school identified as “in need of improvement” under NCLB were far more likely to decrease time in certain subjects to devote more time to ELA and math. For example, 51 percent of districts with an “in needs of improvement” school reported decreased time in social studies compared to 31 percent of districts with no “in needs of improvement” schools (CEP 2007). Having a school “in need of improvement” did not seem to greatly affect the choice to cut recess. Slightly more districts with a school “in needs of improvement” cut recess time compared to districts without: 22 percent compared to 19 percent, respectively. However, in districts that chose to cut recess, those with a school “in needs of improvement” school cut more minutes (see Table 1).

Table 1: Change in recess time 2001–2007



Districts with at least one school identified as "in need of improvement" Districts with no schools identified as "in need of improvement"


 Percent decreasing recess time




 Average decrease in recess minutes per week

60 minutes per week

47 minutes per week

 50 minutes per week


Source: Center on Education Policy, December 2007

The recess gap

While most children, regardless of location, continue to get recess on a regular basis, children who attend high-minority, high-poverty, or urban schools are far more likely than other children to get no recess at all (see Chart 3).

  • High-minority schools. Fourteen percent of elementary schools with a minority enrollment at least 50 percent do not schedule any recess for first graders, compared to 4 percent of schools with 21–49 percent minority enrollment, 5 percent with 6–20 percent minority, and 2 percent with less than 6 percent minority enrollment (FRSS 2005).
  • High-poverty schools.  Eighteen percent of elementary schools with a poverty rate over 75 percent do not provide first graders with recess compared to 3 percent of schools with 50–74 percent poverty rate, 4 percent with 35–49 percent poverty rate, and 4 percent of schools with less than 35 percent poverty rate. The poverty rate is based on proportion of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch (FRSS 2005).
  • Urban schools. Fourteen percent of urban elementary schools do not offer recess to first graders compared to 6 percent of schools on the urban fringe, 6 percent of schools in towns, and 3 percent of rural schools (FRSS 2005).
  • The recess gap extends through sixth grade. The patterns shown above for first graders persist through sixth grade: 24 percent of sixth graders in high-minority schools, 28 percent in high-poverty schools, and 24 percent in urban schools do not get recess, compared to 13 percent of sixth graders overall (FRSS 2005). 

How much recess is enough?

Recess is not disappearing, at least not on a grand scale. But we know anecdotally that school boards here and there are having to make decisions about recess policies. The pressure to find more instructional time for ELA and math is just one reason the issue comes up. Others often cited are lack of facilities, concern for children’s safety, discipline problems, and fear of litigation.

But I thought I heard that...

Some alert readers may be wondering about a couple of statistics that are often cited to raise the alarm about disappearing recess. Why don't they appear in this analysis?

We have seen these data points and did some investigating. What we found is an object lesson in how data can take on a life of its own, separate from the good intentions of its authors. Read more.

If reducing or eliminating recess comes up in your community, there are two things to keep in mind: One, it’s probably going to be unpopular with your parents, teachers, and students; and two, having children plug away at schoolwork with no reprieve will likely produce diminishing returns.

This is not to say that districts should not take a second look at their current recess policies. Some general guidelines are:

  • Consider recess time alongside physical education (PE) requirements. One is not a replacement for the other. Unlike PE, recess is unstructured time when children get to choose their own play, which has its own value. How much time each is allotted can vary according to each district’s needs and resources, but avoid scheduling recess and PE back to back. The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) recommends that children pre-K through grade five or six have regularly scheduled recess every day.
  • Provide 30–60 minutes of physical activity each school day, including recess. According to NASPE, children should get at least one hour of physical activity each day whether in school or out.  The National Academies' Institute of Medicine recommends that all students “participate in a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity during the school day.” 
  • Make sure children are safe. Provide sufficient supervision and check facilities and equipment on a regular basis. Also, don’t withhold recess from students as punishment or to make up work.

Recess is worth protecting. After all, these are children we’re talking about. We ought to give them a break.

Analysis by Patte Barth, Director, Center for Public Education

Posted: August 6, 2008

©Center for Public Education

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