written for The Washington Post

On October 25, 2002, schoolchildren in the Washington area emerged gleefully from locked classrooms and ran out to the playground. “Recess is back,” proclaimed The Washington Post. But had the snipers who shut down ordinary life for weeks chosen to attack in Chicago, or Atlanta, or parts of Texas and Florida — or many other places — the children wouldn’t have marked the return to normality by going out for recess again. Children in these places do not have recess—ever.

Recess has been disappearing quietly, school by school, for at least two decades. Its demise, and the apathy surrounding it, frame a somber picture of contemporary American childhood. Parents would never put their children on leashes, but they might as well: Children are shuffled from car or bus to school door, then proceed through the motions of a supervised day that more closely resembles house arrest than childhood.
School districts do not deliberately enact blanket policies forbidding fun—it just quietly vanishes, except in places where small groups of activist parents kick up dust. One group of child advocates says that 40 percent of American schools have no recess.

Principals banish recess for many reasons, ranging from the offhand to the calculated. Schools want to help children study harder for the standardized tests that are taking over school districts. They want to dismiss school early. They say they need time for gym or Spanish. Or they believe that children cannot be productive unless an adult is leading them—so children have to do things such as the math exercise at one school, in which they estimate their long jumps before leaping. Some schools tell parents that children can unwind in gym class.

The only theme in common at all of the schools without recess is that the school administrators do not think anyone will mind. With the exception of the activists, they are right. In only a few schools has recess made a comeback after falling off the schedule.

Children at recess-free schools get no time to just run and yell, or have fights and make up, or lie down and look at the clouds, or invent a monster game without an adult standing over them. The experts who study child development say that if children don’t get this kind of freedom, tension presses in, concentration evaporates, anger takes over—and they learn less.

A few child experts have concluded this in studies, but one of the academics I interviewed, Olga S. Jarrett, an associate professor of early childhood education at Georgia State University, said that in the United States, there is little research that proves it is important to have fun. She is planning a study comparing academic achievement among children who have recess with that of children who do not.

Teachers, principals, and superintendents think they are making school richer when they increase class time and decrease playground time. But one thing this does is destroy the underground community that thrives on active playgrounds and that the academics say prepares children for the challenges of adult life. For many children now, there is no place away from home where they can just goof off or figure out how to cope with bullies, tattletales and liars.

To read the rest of this article online, even I would have to pay $3.95 by going to the Washington Post archive at: http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/washingtonpost/access/256952961.html?FMT=ABS…


About This Article

This ran on page B7 of the Washington Post on December 8, 2002. It began as a proposal to spend a year observing the underground culture of an elementary school for the Atlantic Monthly. I had lunch with an Atlantic editor, after which I honed my big idea into a more focused one about the importance of recess in the first place. He liked my idea but when the higher-ups said no, he suggested I send the proposal, just as it was, to an op-ed page. Within a week, the Washington Post printed it.

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