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Ask any young child their favorite part of a school day and you’re likely to hear it’s recess. Recess is often the only time kids get for free play during jam-packed school days— and it’s brief: The average length of recess is 25 minutes per day. This time can benefit kids and their teachers, research shows: children are more attentive, productive and perform better cognitively after recess. Elementary school principals have reported that recess has a positive impact on students’ ability to focus. The American Academy of Pediatrics even took a stance on recess in 2013, calling it a “crucial and necessary component of a child’s development” and stating that it should not be withheld.

However, even a brief amount of recess is far from guaranteed in schools nationwide, as I reported in a story published last week on the practice of withholding recess. On any given day, young children have their recess taken away for academic or behavioral reasons and must stay inside, walk laps or sit on a sidewalk and watch their friends play. This is a long-standing and common punishment in schools. Up to 86 percent of teachers have denied or decreased recess time as a punishment for behavior. While it may work in the short term to get some students to comply quickly, experts say the practice can be harmful in the long term, and possibly make behaviors worse.

“When we take that away, we’re not working in our own self-interest,” said William Massey, an assistant professor at Oregon State University and a researcher who focuses on play, physical activity and child development. “If your goal is to have more regulated and engaged, productive kids in the classroom, removing opportunities for them to move is about the worst way you can go about doing that.”

Part of the challenge in curbing the practice is that teachers may not have support to roll out some of the alternative methods play advocates and child development experts say should be used in place of withholding recess. Many schools lack social workers, counselors and other resources that could help teachers get to the root cause of difficult behaviors. ­­And on a state level, the laws and policies addressing recess vary greatly and often have loopholes that still allow children to miss out:

  • A handful of states have laws that establish a minimum number of minutes for recess each day or week, but those laws may not mention withholding recess. Parents in one state with a mandate told me recess still gets taken away after kids reach that minimum time.
  • About one-third of states broadly require a minimum amount of physical activity time each day or week for elementary students, but may not specifically mention recess. That physical activity time can be met through recess, but also through physical education or other forms of movement that don’t offer the benefits kids reap through unstructured, free play.
  • Some state agencies or committees offer guidance to schools on “best practices” around recess policies, but stop short of establishing a requirement, effectively leaving it up to districts or even individual schools.
  • Nine states don’t address recess through any formal law, guidance or policy, according to a Hechinger review of data collected by the King County Play Equity Coalition.

States also differ greatly when it comes addressing the use of recess as punishment:

  • A handful of states broadly require that physical activity should not be withheld as a punishment, which could include recess and physical education.
  • A few states address withholding recess, some with stronger language than others. While Illinois’ law says all public schools must prohibit the withholding of play time as a disciplinary or punitive action (except when a student’s participation is an immediate threat to someone’s safety), Rhode Island’s law says teachers shall make a “good-faith effort” to not withhold recess. New Jersey’s law says schools cannot withhold recess more than twice each week and only for a violation of a district’s student code of conduct.

In the absence of state policies, some districts have taken it upon themselves to set their own rules around recess, although interviews with parents in three such districts — Minneapolis, Minnesota; Austin, Texas; and Wichita, Kansas — show enforcement can be weak. Some districts still leave room for recess withholding to happen. In Wichita, for example, the district’s policy states that physical activity should not be “routinely” used or withheld as a consequence, leaving teachers and principals to decide what counts as “routine.”

There are also school districts that make withholding recess part of their formal discipline policy, identifying recess detention as a possible or mandatory consequence for various behaviors. These districts often publish these consequences publicly in student handbooks. When that is the policy, there’s little recourse for parents unless the school or district adopts a new policy, or a state law is enacted. (Research shows that laws, rather than district policies, make the greatest difference in protecting recess.)

Jessica, a Kentucky parent who spoke on the condition that her last name be withheld because she fears school officials will retaliate against her and her child, tried last year to organize fellow parents to support a law that would make it illegal in that state to remove recess for punitive reasons. She made little progress. The district that Jessica’s son attends lists “in-school (lunch/recess) detention” as an intervention to be used for a host of behaviors, including “back talking,” regular tardiness, or failure to follow a “reasonable request” from a teacher or school official.

Jessica’s son, who has a sensory processing disorder, said his recess was frequently withheld in kindergarten and first grade for things like falling out of his seat, fidgeting or playing with pencils. Instead of playing, he had to sit on a bench next to the teacher and watch his classmates.

Jessica said the punishment took a toll on her son, now 8, and on his self-image. “He would come home really upset pretty often,” Jessica said. “He told me, ‘They don’t let me play on recess because I’m bad. I’m a bad kid.’” Eventually, she retained a lawyer who helped push for official special education paperwork to give her son more movement opportunities in school.

But there was nothing stopping Jessica’s son’s teachers from turning to the punishment. Kentucky does not have a law protecting recess. A 2015 state legislative report found teachers at two-thirds of the schools in Kentucky “commonly withhold recess” for behavior or missing work. In 2016, in response to that report, the Kentucky Department of Education issued guidance that allows schools to count recess as instructional time, under certain conditions. If counted as such, recess cannot be withheld as a punishment. Otherwise, it can be withheld “at the discretion of the district or school.”

Although the state allows withholding recess, Kentucky’s Commissioner of Education, Jason E. Glass, said in a statement to the Hechinger Report that he did not recommend using withholding recess to punish students, noting it “may be counterproductive, leading to more student behavior problems.”

Despite her attempts to curb the practice, Jessica found out this spring that her son, now a third grader, is once again occasionally losing part of his recess. She is sympathetic to teachers’ need to enforce rules through consequences, but she disagrees with recess being a punishment.

Teachers need more “modern options,” she said. “It’s completely counterintuitive to punish a child who can’t hold still by taking away the time they are meant to move, to get them to hold still. It’s just ridiculous.”

This story about recess guidelines was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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