Michelle Marroquin knew what happened at school the moment her twins Luke and Will hit the front door at home. They bounced, cavorted and generally ran amok.
Sure enough, they had no recess; it was an extremely cold day with the gym otherwise occupied – this at a school that normally mandates recess.
“I’m a huge proponent of recess,” says Marroquin, a former middle school teacher, now mother of two sets of twins and a 3-year-old. “Recess provides a time for children to have unstructured playtime that benefits learning. On another level, recess is a time when children are actually learning valuable social skills – negotiation, cooperation and sharing.”
Mari Riojas-Cortez, Ph.D., agrees heartily with Marroquin’s approach to recess. Riojas-Cortez is the chairperson of the University of Texas at San Antonio Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching and professor of early childhood education. Occasionally when she is overlooking a playground of cavorting, running, chasing, laughing children she overhears someone saying, “Oh, those kids are just playing,” to which she responds, “That’s what they need to be doing as a time away from color, cut, paste and memorization drills.”
“Play lets children open up and really be creative especially since they don’t have to come up with a product,” notes the recess encourager Riojas-Cortez. “It’s good for children to go outside for both their mind and body – in a time the noise level doesn’t matter. Kids must have and very much need a break from structured cognitive, academic activities.
“Play in early years help children build a foundation for skills they will need when older – problem solving, ability to be creative and exercise their fantasy and imagination – all tools needed for high level math and science as well as reading and writing.”
“Data shows that unstructured play is important for child development, indeed every bit as import as academics,” says pediatrician, father of three, and an avid proponent of recess, Dr. Glen Medellin. Medellin, the Interim Division Chair in the Department of General Pediatrics at University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, however, has one concern: recesses should be properly supervised to prevent bullying.
The pediatrician also says studies indicate that after recess children actually do better on tests because they are energized. Medellin thinks the Japanese have an interesting model when it comes to unstructured time.
“Japanese schools give breaks at the end of each hour of instruction. Having kids sit down the whole day doesn’t make sense,” he says, “especially because kids have shorter attention spans.”
Kindergarten teacher Colleen Socha, who is on the front line with children every day at Leon Springs Elementary School in the Northside District is adamant, “I feel like every kid needs unstructured downtime – time to be on their own – being outside, learning how to both win and lose, how to get up if you fall down. “Children’s brains need a break so all that information they’ve been absorbing can sink into their unconscious.”
But, says Socha, the worst possible scenario is when kids who haven’t finished their work, or who misbehaved, are deprived of recess. Socha, who is as spirited and enthusiastic as the children she teaches, says all children should be allowed to go out and play.
Indeed it’s fortunate for Marroquin and other families in her neighborhood because Leon Springs Elementary School policy values recess every bit as much as the academic side of schooling.
“We are so lucky at our school because our principal, Kathy Dodge-Clay tells us that ‘No kids should stay in from recess.’ She says children have to get out and sharpen that saw.”
Marroquin admits however, when she was teaching, and before she had children, she didn’t understand the important role of recess for children.
“Now I see firsthand a child’s attention span is limited; they often need to get up and move around. There is such an important connection between movement and learning.”
And as a parent Marroquin says, “Not so much for my girl, but for my three boys, not being able to move makes a huge difference. After exercise and play they actually are better in paying attention and sitting still.”
Marroquin concludes, “I am adamant against taking recess as a punishment or for using the time for academic remediation. Children are denied important time to explore, learn and expand their boundaries when recess is seen as subordinate to structured classroom learning.”
When Marroquin picks up her five children from school, the first thing she asks, “Did you go outside and play? If not, it’s home for outside or if bad weather, definitely some indoor play time.”
Mary Lance is a San Antonio freelance writer. She is a mother and grandmother.