Rethinking Recess

Chad DirkseThe CACE Roundtable3 Comments

Some of my clearest memories of elementary school are the all-out sprints from the door to be the first to the basketball court, baseball diamond or the merry-go-round at recess. I remember, like it was yesterday, how hard it was to stay in the single file line from the classroom to the exit door, frustrated by how slowly the line had to move, wishing I could be the line leader every week to exercise at least some influence to get the line moving more quickly. After all, recess was only 15 minutes and we shouldn’t waste any more of that delight-filled freedom than absolutely necessary.

Unfortunately, the exuberance of those memories is often tempered by additional memories of sunny days when my classroom misbehavior or failure to complete assignments kept me from recess bliss. Chagrin returns as my visual switches channel to the times I silently sat in my desk, head down on crossed arms, while my friends enthusiastically filed out of the room to freedom, pausing momentarily to smile mischievously back at me to heighten my restless indignation. The conflict I feel as I look back on those days, as an educator rather than an energetic, active and sometimes disruptive elementary student, is NOT that consequences weren’t appropriate and beneficial in helping me the see the cost of my misbehavior while redirecting me to more preferential behavior patterns. I am conflicted because, like me, many students over the years have been subject to recess exclusions as a consequence for misbehavior or incomplete work even though the preponderance of evidence seems to point to the fact that this practice actually exacerbates the problems teachers are trying to solve. Before reading forward, it is important to note that I didn’t just experience recess exclusions as an elementary child, but I have used them as a teacher. The biggest log is in my own eye.

It generally does not surprise us when we read that children need active, unstructured play. An example of one such study is found here. We also know intrinsically that all human beings need breaks and down time in environments where requirements include being focused listeners, active participators and supportive collaborators over extended periods of time. Consider how we respond to full days (7-8 hours) of teacher in-service that include presentations in hour long (or more) increments and collaborative work sessions on things we didn’t fully understand prior to that day. Then imagine if we stopped for lunch and required anyone who had used their cell phones, checked their email, carried on a side conversation, or didn’t complete the group assignment, to sit separately from everyone else during lunch and to remain in the classroom during breaks, disallowing informal interaction with peers and moments outside to bask in the glory of sunshine and fresh air. How productive and engaging would we likely be during the rest of the day’s activities? How positively would we feel about the person leading the day’s activities and exercising their authority with such consequences?  How excited would we be to come back the next day to learn more about the ideas presented and discussed? How likely would we be to believe that professional development was meant for our growth and flourishing?

It is true that children and adults are different and using examples like the one above could lead to spurious correlations. It is also true that God’s image is reflected in us, in part, through our propensity to be active and desire to be free. We are wired to engage, to relate, and to create. We also desperately need moments to rest, stretch, spread our wings and be free from the constraints of structure, planning and organization. We need these things to flourish. We are much less productive when these things are not regular parts of our daily experiences. Our children are no different. If we would never intentionally keep ourselves from necessary and appropriate respite, why would we ever consider keeping it from our children, even those who misbehaved or didn’t complete the work we assigned?

I am wondering out loud why we can’t just put a stake in the ground and commit to NEVER, EVER, using recess exclusions of any length or type again as a consequence for student misbehavior and incomplete work. Why can’t we creatively and collaboratively fashion better and more effective consequences while holding tightly to the philosophy that consequences, in a grace-filled, Christ-centered cultures, ARE highly beneficial to individuals and communities when done to instruct and restore rather than penalize and shame.

I am in full agreement that children need structure, order and accountability. I believe God uses redemptive consequences for our flourishing and has instructed us to use them with our children for their flourishing. However, I simply believe we can do much better than separate children from recess for their misbehavior and incomplete work. I believe recess should always be unstructured, active, relational, safe and free. I believe kids need recess as much as they need every academic discipline and a healthy lunch. I believe we would never remove a child from math because they misbehaved during a grammar lesson so we should never remove recess from a child who misbehaved during a science experiment. I believe we can create redemptive consequences that allow active, energetic and sometimes disruptive elementary students to see how their misbehavior fractures their vertical relationship with God and their horizontal relationships with their classmates and teachers. I believe doing this reflects the value, beauty and transcendence of God’s engrafting grace.

I wonder if we don’t utilize recess exclusions as consequences more because it is easier for us, than it is good for our students. I believe recess is a constructive component of an educational community that promotes flourishing. The more consistently students experience our commitment to their flourishing, the more likely we will experience their commitment to the much more difficult things required of them in learning.


  • Chad Dirkse

    Chad Dirkse has served in Christian education for 25 years in roles that include, math and science teacher, coach, athletic director, principal, head of school and board member. He is currently the President of Chattanooga Christian School where he serves more 1,100 students and 130 faculty and staff. Prior to his current position he served as the Superintendent at Westminster Christian School in Elgin, Illinois. Chad has an undergraduate degree in education from Covenant College and and MBA with a specialization in school leadership from LeTourneau University. Chad speaks regularly to groups about the school sustainability and the importance of consistency in the process and content of Christian schooling.

3 Comments on “Rethinking Recess”

  1. Thank you for this article. I agree with the importance of recess and unstructured play. What consequences or remediation would you suggest as alternatives for those students who misbehave or do not complete assignments?

  2. Having taught and/or substitute taught in every grade and subject TK-12, I concur completely. Thank you, Chad, for expressing this winsomely and well.

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