Recess: the fourth 'R'? [Commentary]

Every school should have a Donte Samuel. For more than eight years, Mr. Samuel has created a warm and happy environment at Belmont Elementary in West Baltimore, where excited pupils greet him daily with bright eyes and wide smiles in the middle of their regimented school day.

Mr. Samuel is not a teacher or an administrator; he's not a school nurse, social worker or custodian. To the children, he's "coach," and to the principal and teachers at Belmont Elementary, he's a godsend and the key to a better classroom climate for the 355 students and 24 teachers. His contribution: leading a recess period that is fun and vigorous, and where every kid gets into one game or another.

The scene is being replicated with slight variations in 24 other Baltimore elementary schools this week as the new school year gets underway. Mr. Samuel and other Playworks Maryland "coaches" will lead pupils in kindergarten through fifth grade through games — such as 4-square, red light-green light and football — and other group activities or individual play (with hula hoops, for example) during the short recess period. The coaches spend time teaching the rules for new games and getting things moving. Every child participates, so no child is left on the sidelines.

As students start heading back to school and principals, teachers and parents start thinking about how to make sure the new school year is a successful one, few people are likely to consider recess one of the most important periods of the school day. The fact is, there is compelling evidence that a positive recess period can contribute to an improved school climate and increased student engagement in school. If we want to see better attendance, better grades and better student attitudes toward school, improving the recess experience is a good place to start.

When kids experience chaos, conflict or exclusion on the playground — name-calling, bullying or even physical fighting — they come back to class angry, agitated and unable to settle back to academics. Indeed, most discipline and injury reports happen during recess, and teachers report having trouble getting kids to focus their attention on classwork.

On the other hand, when students have a good experience at recess — when they feel like they are part of the game, are physically active and don't have to worry about being bullied or excluded – they come back to class energized, cheerful and ready to learn. Recent research bears this out, with one study from Mathematica Policy Research and Stanford University showing that teachers gained an average of eight minutes a day of quality classroom time in Playworks schools.

But the benefits go beyond just adding to increased academic time. The skills that students learn and the experiences they have during a safe and healthy recess help make for a better school experience overall in myriad ways. During a Playworks recess, kids are learning a host of life skills that help them do better and feel better: they're learning to work as a team, have empathy for others, play fair and be inclusive, and resolve simple conflicts without resorting to harsh words or violent behavior. The kids are happier, and they look forward to recess as a time to have fun, play hard and take a "brain break" -- not a time to worry about problems on the playground.

Playworks, a national non-profit located in 23 regions across the country, arrived in Baltimore in 2005 and this year will reach more than 15,000 Maryland students through in-school coaches or training services. Ask the pupils' principals and teachers and they will tell you of the marked reduction in problems surrounding recess and the improvement in the school environment since Playworks arrived.

And their feelings are supported by the Mathematica and Stanford study as well as others, showing not only increased classroom time but also a reduction in bullying, an enhanced feeling of safety at school and increased vigorous physical activity. The research indicates that improving schoolyard play can reverberate far beyond kickball games.

Baltimore's public schools are grappling with a host of issues as they work to improve the school climate and the student experience on campus. There's no one answer to these challenges. But when children enjoy school and feel welcomed and included, they're more likely to make sure they get there and they're more likely to thrive once they arrive. Although it may not be immediately obvious, recess can contribute to school success.

Randi Hogan is executive director of Playworks Maryland, where Norris P. West is chair of the board. Their emails are and NWest@AECF.ORG.

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