Recess: Is it Just for Play?

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 4 │Recess: Is it Just for Play?

Wednesday, September 25, 2019



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Show Notes

William Massey

Recess is often a student’s favorite time of their school day and it also leads to better behavior and academic performance. Yet a recent report revealed only 16% of states require elementary schools to have daily recess. We discuss why recess is important for students’ physical health—as well as their social and emotional development—and look at what schools and families are doing to protect and enhance recess time at school. Researcher and dad, William Massey, explains the benefits of recess, what high-quality recess looks like and how parents can get involved in recess. PTA leader and school board member, Angie Gallo, also shares how you can become a recess advocate in your community.


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Transcript (Disponible en Español)

Intro: Welcome to "Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast." This series features real conversations with real experts, real parents and real educators so families can get the real behind the scenes story on what's happening in education. Get the inside scoop on how to help your child become successful in and out of school. As parents, we know that your child can sometimes forget to share the notes from their backpack to tell you everything that's happening at their school. That's why we've launched this podcast just for you. Welcome to "Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast."

Helen: Hi everyone. I am Helen Westmoreland, Director of Family Engagement at National PTA and you are listening to "Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast." Today we are discussing a pretty hot topic in the education world, "Recess." As parents we know recess is important but it can also be a place where kids get into trouble and many schools have been cutting on recess over the last decade. During today's episode, we will share ways families just like you can advocate for your child's health and physical education.

LaWanda: I am LaWanda Toney, Director of Communications at National PTA. And we're starting today's episode by hearing from Angie Gallo, Orange County School Board member and Vice President of Educational Development at Florida PTA. You can follow Angie on Twitter @UCFAlum. She spoke with us to share her story.

Angie: It started several years ago with just a group of moms. And they were a group of moms at one elementary school that their children will come home, they had young children, in kindergarten and first grade, and they were coming home and they were crying and they were upset and they were miserable. And the parents are like, "What's the funnest part of your day? Like, what do you like?" And they repeatedly were like, "We like recess." And they're, like, "Well, you have recess." And then they come to find out they didn't have recess every day. They started first advocating at school board level. That kind of brought the PTA in and then that's how I come on board. And that's when we began our advocacy work with the Recess Moms to get 20 minutes of recess in every elementary school in Florida.

LaWanda: We know a lot of you listening are interested in starting your advocacy journey as well. So we asked Angie, what advice she has for all of you looking to get more involved.

Angie: Be patient and be persistent. I would get all like-minded people together. Social media is key.

LaWanda: Through research, we understand that all recess is not created equal. It is so important that children are getting enough time on the playground. Today's guest, Dr. William Massey, is here to talk with us about why recess matters and what good recess looks like.

Helen: LaWanda, I am really excited for our guest today, Dr. William Massey. He is an assistant professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University where he runs the two-play research laboratory which focuses on ways to help children and teens increase their access to physical activity and promote social and emotional development. He is also a father of three and a youth sports coach. You can follow Dr. Massey on Twitter @WVMassey. Dr. Massey, thank you for joining us today.

Dr. Massey: Thank you for having me.

Helen: We'd love to learn a little bit about you. Tell us how you got involved in researching physical education in recess.

Dr. Massey: My PhD and training is in sport and exercise psychology. As a part of my graduate training, I worked as a therapist for homeless traumatized inner city youth. Through that, really saw the power that play could have in the lives of children, particularly children who are going through some difficult circumstances. I was able to get connected to the local school district where I was, which was Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and just kind of started down a path of trying to better understand the playground is an environment where we can promote social and emotional growth in children and also just from being on playgrounds over and over throughout the last decade or so and having young kids of my own seeing the importance of play in the lives of children and needing to better understand how we can make that an opportunity for growth.

Helen: So you mentioned you've seen the benefits of this in the lives of your children. Could you tell us what that looks like when your kids are playing or not playing?

Dr. Massey: For our oldest, so he's 10. He's going into fifth grade. We know right away when he gets home from school if he's had a lot of physical activity at school or not. Like, his mood is different. His attitude is different. His willingness to help out around the house is different. There was one point in time where we were collecting data on playground, not in his schools but in other schools and just tracking kids physical activity at school. And so I put one of our physical activity trackers on t him. And we were just kind of look at the end of the day, like how physically active were you today? I could guess before we looked at the data how active he was just based on how he came home. And so one of the things we do is just point that out to him like, "Look, you're pretty fussy today and it looks like you weren't that active at recess. And so tomorrow maybe we try being a little bit more active during the day and see how that affects us."

Helen: Dr. Massey, why is recess so important?

Dr. Massey: It's generally the number one area for kids to get physical activity during the school day. Certainly, we know all the benefits to physical activity from a physical health standpoint but also from a learning standpoint and just firing up kids' brains, getting them ready to learn, giving them the opportunity to move. It really creates an authentic environment for kids to engage in during the school day. And so if we think about recess, it's a place that has a lot of potential for kids to learn, to grow, to interact, to be kids, to navigate the world that they live in in a way that's a little bit more real for them.

Helen: If it's that important and all the benefits that you mentioned, why are schools cutting it out of the school day?

Dr. Massey: If we trace back a couple of decades when No Child Left Behind was instituted as educational policy in the country, we really went towards an education system that prioritized subjects that were getting tested. And so I think in a lot of ways recess and physical education, arts, music, things like that became low-hanging fruit in terms of the chopping block because they weren't getting tested and the testing wasn't tied to federal funding. Oftentimes, recess is more or less an afterthought. We don't always think about it as a learning environment. I think that makes it easy to dismiss. Schools struggle with recess. They don't know what to do. You have behavioral problems at recess. It can cause headaches for principals and teachers. And so it becomes easier to say, "Well, let's just get rid of it and then we'll get rid of the problems that happen there rather than to deal with them in a more proactive manner."

Helen: Could you talk about what the research says good recess looks like?

Dr. Massey: For some kids, recess can be great. And for some kids, recess can be just an overall bad experience. And so well, we often think about the benefits of recess, it's also one of the number one places where bullying and victimization happen and we know that that's tied to kids' feelings of safety and belonging at school. And we know that's tied to educational outcomes. I think we have to think of it both ways. It's an environment that has the potential for growth and it's an environment that has the potential to have adverse effects on children.

Kids spend 7 hours a day, 5 days a week for about 200 days a year for 12 years at school. So if you do the math, that's, like, a lot of hours. Do we want that to be only reading, writing, math or do we want them to learn skills like conflict resolution, negotiation, communication, how to self-organize a game or an event? For me when we think about 21st century skills and jobs, those are the things that our children need to learn in order to be successful in the real world. In a lot of ways recess mimics the real world. And so it gives kids that opportunity where it's discretionary time. It's not a teacher telling them what they have to do and when they have to do it and so we kind of see how that naturally plays out.

Helen: How does recess help kids develop social skills? And how can it enhance their emotional well-being?

Dr. Massey: So if you think about the playgrounds and we view this through the eyes of the kid, you walk out of the school. And depending where you're at, the playground could look very different. It could be just a big cement block. It could be grass. There could be play structures. There could be equipment. But one of the first things that kids going to have to do is they're going to have to make a decision as to what they're going to do with that time, with that space, with that equipment. It's one of the few parts of the day where they actually have autonomy and decision-making power, the ability to regulate, "Well, what am I going to do when nobody is telling me what to do?" Is one of those important life skills that recess can help teach.

So now you have to manage, "How am I going to interact with all these people?" If we think about a job, you probably can't think of many where you don't have to interact with people on a regular basis. And so I have this limited space and oftentimes they have this limited equipment, and I have all of these people and I have to figure out how to make it work. It's some pretty high-level skills that we're asking them to do to start a game to manage it themselves. Let's just say they're playing a team sport like soccer, right? They're going to have to be calling their own fouls, making their own rules and negotiating in a way that keeps the game going. Because if they start fighting over like, "No, it was out," then the game is going to stop, and the play's going to stop. And so it's going to be just anti to their purposes of being out there. And so all of these skills, I think we can directly translate into what they're going to need to be able to do to be successful as adults.

Helen: We've heard from some parents that recess isn't necessarily entirely going away in their school, but being replaced with a PE class or something else indoors that maybe is more structured. So from your sort of expert opinion, is that a shift in the wrong direction? What would you say to that policy change?

Dr. Massey: I think we need to fundamentally separate physical education and recess. And so we think of physical education, yeah, it's also a space for children to be active, but it's also a space for them to learn physical literacy and health literacy. They should be learning in physical education about how to be active throughout the lifespan. It's not about just being active in that moment, but it's learning some of those fundamental motor skills, learning about motivation, learning about how to sustain that through the lifespan. Recess, we should think of that as more discretionary time, right? So this is the kids time to somewhat figure it out. It's another opportunity to be physically active, but it's one in which they can be more autonomous, have more choice and develop some of those skills that we just talked about that are necessary for them to be successful.

Helen: Dr. Massey, what does the research say about the benefits of recess or what happens if you don't get recess?

Dr. Massey: I can point you to a couple of studies where they looked at children who got 15 minutes of recess or more per day or basically didn't have it or had less than 15 minutes per day. And what the results of that study showed was that kids who had recess or who had longer recess were better behaved in the classroom or less behavioral report, less disciplinary issues. And so we see that when kids have recess, we actually see better behavior in the classroom. You have to remember, they are still kids. And so as kids, they still have that need to play, to be active, to relate to their peers, to have choice and decision making. There's a whole host of research that shows basically that the more time you add for recess, that it doesn't actually take away from academic outcomes. And so that's often pointed to as well. We can't have more recess because we need more curricular time, but the literature fully debunks that idea.

Helen: You mentioned that the research shows that having more recess leads to better behavior in the classroom. But the sort of ironic thing is one of the reasons recess is being taken away is it's an environment of behavioral challenges when kids are in this unstructured time. How have you seen some schools take what might be a dangerous situation... I know parents are worried about this too. Like, "I don't want my kids to be unsafe on the playground or bullied on the playground." What have schools done to keep recess but make it a better experience for kids?

Dr. Massey: Recess is part of the school day. And so we can be intentional about how we plan that. And so one thing we can do is structure the environment in a way that can make kids successful. Oftentimes, when parents hear structured recess, the response is, "Well, there's the school just trying to control one more part of the kid's day." Like, recess is supposed to be the time where it's do whatever they want. But if you set recess up as a free-for-all, like, it will be that, right? And it will be a place where anything can happen. If you set it up for success, right, like you set up an environment where there are places where we basically say, "This is where you can play team sports. And this is where you can do jump ropes. Like if you want to run and be crazy and just let loose and be wild, like do it over here." So this is the space for that.

So one solution is to just set up these kind of yes spaces. You can do this here, you can do this here, you can do this here and then adequately provide the resources for those spaces. I think one of the issues where recess becomes the problem is where schools and school districts have basically just disinvested from recess, right? So you don't have any resources going in, whether it be equipment, whether it be teacher support and supervision, whether it be training, certainly modifying the environment to set it up so that kids can be successful. You wouldn't have a classroom, you wouldn't have kids just walk in and have no sense of what the behavioral expectations are, right? As a teacher, you set up your classroom on day one with the expectations of how kids will behave and the structures that learning can happen. I think you can do the same thing with recess and schools who do a good job with that, you see that a lot.

Helen: So I'm a parent and my kid comes home from school and I want to know about their recess time. How do I ask the question and what am I looking for to make sure that it is quality recess time?

Dr. Massey: First, you might ask them if they had it.

Helen: Number one question.

Dr. Massey: Yeah. "Did you have recess today?" And then if they say, "No," then maybe start probing, "Well, why not?" I think another thing you could ask just around access is "Did any of your friends get recess taken away today?" We know that despite recommendations against a lot of schools use recess as kind of the carrot and the stick, right? If we think of it in a context where we're talking about recess as an environment for learning, you wouldn't take math away because the kid was misbehaving at lunch. So why would you take another learning opportunity away? Once we know that they've been out on the playground, some of the things I would ask are just, "What did you do at recess today? Who did you do it with?"

Asking those questions on a semi regular basis gives you a lot of insight into what their experience is like. If they're reporting let's say like every day you ask, and they're, like, "Meh, I didn't really do anything. There wasn't anyone to play with." So that probably points to a problem that there's a lot of exclusion happening at recess, or there's not a lot of resources for kids to support play. If you find that it's always they're doing one thing with the same small group of people, then we might be getting into, well, recess is pretty cliquey. There's the in crowd and the out crowd and depending on which one you're in, you might have access to different things.

If you see that, you know, one day they're doing foursquare and then one day they're playing basketball, and another day they're playing football, you see that kids are able to kind of freely move through different types of games, play with different kids, and you have an environment that's supporting that. So I think some of it is looking for those patterns and what they're doing and who they're doing it with. That can start to give you a picture of are they pigeonholed into one area of the playground?

Helen: We get asked a lot it National PTA what are good practices schools can use to engage families? And certainly when you think about classroom learning, one of our recommendations is let parents see what is going on in the classroom and help out and be a part of that. What about recess? Is it fair to assume that parents can be involved in recess? And what might that look like?

Dr. Massey: I think so. So on a couple of levels, let's say I moved to a new town and there were options of schools to go to and I had to, like, choose which one I was going to send my child to, I would want to go and watch a recess before anything else. Because if I go and observe the classroom, well, like the teacher is most likely going to know that I'm observing the classroom. You know, not to say that they're going to try to put on a show, but it's a structured environment. There's norms and expectations happening. I think a recess really gives you the culture of the school. I would want to go out there and I would want to see, one, what's the access like? What are kids have access and opportunity for? Two, how are children treating each other out there? Three, how are adults engaging in this time? Are they kind of standing back? Are they not paying attention? Are they yelling and screaming at kids? Are they playing alongside them? And then four, how are they handling disputes, behavioral concerns and any conflicts on the playground? And as a parent, I would love to see how recess runs.

In terms of parent involvement, one of the things that we've learned in our research is that when you have adults on the playground who are engaged with children so they're playing games with them, they're helping them set up the games, there's a couple of patterns we see there. One, kids are more physically active. Two, they're more engaged in play. And three, there's less conflict on the playground.

So I think often there's a sense of, "Well, if I'm on the playground, I have to be supervising to make sure problems don't happen." But what our data shows is that when we kind of drop the, "I have to be the police of the problems approach" and take on a," I'm just going to play and have fun because it's fun to play and be active at recess." That a lot of the problems take care of themselves by the adults being in close proximity with and playing alongside the children. So I think that's like a great strategy for schools to leverage to try to get parents in to play at recess.

Helen: You talked about the research, Dr. Massey, about the benefits of having recess. Is that true throughout 12th grade and maybe even beyond? Because I know we do tend to keep recess for the little kids. But is it just as important as high school as preschool?

Dr. Massey: I would argue it's even beyond. We know that there's benefits to physical activity all the way through the life course even into your '70s, '80s, and '90s. Research shows that the brain still has an ability to regenerate, to grow, and exercise and physical activity can be an important function in that. Even if you think of yourselves, could you sit in those chairs for like seven eight hours and be focused and productive all day?

Helen: I mean, sometimes we have to. No.

Angie: No. You want to get up, you want to stretch out. I'll go to Helen and say, "Let's go for a walk."

Helen: We'll go for a walk around the block.

: Yeah.

Dr. Massey: Yeah. And I think you see that throughout corporate America, you see a growing trend where companies are putting gyms and fitness facilities and encouraging people to take lunch breaks. Google and Nike, they actively promote, like, "Go be active. Have fun." Make the workplace a place that people want to be where people have fun, and then they can be more creative when they come back to work. And so let's just take a 17-year-old who's in high school, if we just say like, "Sit in this chair for 15 minutes, and then transition to the next one for 15 minutes." How are we promoting a sense of curiosity? How are we promoting a sense of creativity? How are we promoting a sense of innovation?

I think you can do that to some degree in a classroom. But a lot of times those things happen naturally and in a more innovative way. You might have some kids who choose not to be active. Still it creates a space for them to interact and engage in an authentic way, have conversations, be creative, come up with ideas and so protecting that space throughout the lifespan is an important thing.

Helen: If a child isn't getting enough recess at school, what can parents do at home?

Dr. Massey: I have learned as a researcher parent that my voice as a parent is often more heard than my voice as a researcher. Like, if I were to go to my kids' school as the university professor who does research on kids' physical activity and say, "These kids need to move more," like nothing will happen. If I go as a parent and say, like, "This is unacceptable. My kids should have recess. Like it shouldn't be taken away." Like generally, that moves the needle a bit more. The more parents can work together and maybe through the PTA to say like, "This is an important issue for us." That schools are responsive to parents.

In the home and outside of school, a lot of it I think it's going to depend on community and access. Like not everywhere parents going to be able to just like take their kids to the park. And so I think finding in your context what works. It might be getting up in the morning and going for a walk or walking your kids to school. But obviously for some parents, that's not going to be a possibility. You know, it might be doing fun things like getting pool noodles and doing sword fights in the living room as a way to just kind of engage some of those creative play moments. If you're stuck in the house, not outdoor access where you live or there's bad weather. I lived in Wisconsin for eight years. So, like, winter was a trying time.

But you can build obstacle courses. You can have the kids build obstacle courses. I think as a parent you have to let go a little bit of like your house might be a little messy at times. And if you can let go of that, you can just encourage kids to be creative in that space. You know, use the couch cushions, use the blankets, use the chairs, set up courses. You know, aside from that and looking at before and after school programs, I think it's always good connecting with your local YMCA or Boys and Girls Club. They always provide great resources and opportunities. Going to your local parks if that's an option, I think is a great thing to do alongside your kids.

Helen: Dr. Massey, what is the one thing parents, educators, and schools should take away from today's conversation?

Dr. Massey: We shouldn't view recess as just this other thing that happens at school. If we view it as a place where learning can occur, then we should treat it like any other place that learning should occur. We should be intentional. We should plan. We should dedicate resources towards it. We should think about how do we use this environment to set children up for success? And how do we translate what we know about the study of recess into action?

I think one of the main things is that we have a lot of data around what makes a good recess, how to do recess, how to make it successful. But we don't have is a lot of translation of that evidence into policy and practice on a national level, on a regional level, on a school district level, on a school level. And so moving away from recess is just this other thing that happens. It's a break for everybody. It's a place where learning can happen if we structure it that way, would be the one thing I would hope everyone would take away.

Helen: So Dr. Massey, for parents like Angie Gallo in Florida who are making the case for recess and want to learn more, where should they go?

Dr. Massey: Well, there's a couple of places they can go. To keep up with some of the work that we're doing, you can go to Another great resource is the CDC. The CDC has a whole section of their page dedicated to recess. An easy way to get there, it's just do a Google search for CDC recess. But if you want the link at My lab has actually partnered with Playworks, which is the national organization that does recess programming. And so the Playworks website has a lot of great resources but one of the pages on there is dedicated to the great recess framework, which is highlighting some of our work in terms of what does make it great recess and how can schools evaluate that? It's

Helen: Thank you again, Dr. Massey, for coming in to talk about the importance of recess and what the process looks like.

Dr. Massey: Thank you so much for having me.

Helen: For those tuning in, don't forget to follow Dr. Massey on Twitter @WVMassey, M-A-S-S-E-Y. And, as always, keep the conversation going by using #backpacknotes on social media to share your thoughts about today's episode. Thanks again for joining us.

Outro: Thank you for tuning into "Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast." Be sure to follow us on social media at National PTA and online at


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