One of the more debated educational issues right now is whether or not there should be middle school recess. While one side points to the rising obesity rate among today's youth, the other side points to the fact that our educational system lags behind many other countries.
The Middle School Recess Debate
Traditionally, students used to have recess up until sixth grade. Then they went on to junior high and high school and recess became a thing of the past. However, once middle school began to replace the concept of "junior high" school, the cut off age for recess became younger. While the decision to have recess still remains up to the school's principal, it is not uncommon for students to have no recess starting in the 5th grade.
Why We Stopped Having Middle School Recess
There are more than a few factors that have led some educators to believe that recess is not a necessity. When the trend first started developing, it was in response to international competition. In 1983, Charles Doyle, the assistant dean of the School of Education at DePaul University, published a report called, "A Nation at Risk." In it, he highlighted the many ways in which students from the United States fall short compared to their international counterparts. In other countries, the concept of having free time during a school day is foreign. Schools in other parts of the world are in session more days per year, for more hours per day. Japanese students, for example, go to school six days per week, year round.
The logical conclusion is that American students don't spend enough time in school. However, the report had a second relatively unforeseen effect. The report called for standardized testing and in many ways that report demanded a response that has given birth to the current slew of standardized testing that our schools are now doing. With so much pressure being put on teachers to have students perform well on standardized tests, there is little desire or effort put into having recess. In fact, some would argue vehemently, that having recess detracts from the important goal of doing well on standardized testing.
The Pro-Recess Movement
Of course there's another side to this debate. Most teachers in informal surveys seem to favor recess. In addition, the idea of saving recess got major publicity, when in 2006, Cartoon Network launched a campaign in conjunction with the National Parent and Teacher's Association called "Rescuing Recess". The main goal of Rescuing Recess is to promote written policy at the local and state levels that protects recess for students through sixth grade. The program to date has donated millions of dollars in funding for research and public awareness campaigns. Proponents of keeping recess through middle school point out numerous research studies:
- The rate of obesity for children ages 10 to 15 has doubled in the last twenty years. The obesity rate for teens has tripled. In short, kids need to be encouraged to move more.
- Research indicates that learning and memory actually improve when learning is spaced out rather than presented all at once.
- Physical activity makes the brain more alert.
- Play is an active form of learning, even in middle school.
- Many social graces are learned on the playground. While Physical Education classes provide a sequential and developmental instructional program for physical fitness, recess allows children to play, make up rules and have choices.
- Even adults have regularly scheduled coffee breaks.
A Final Word on the United States Educational System
Since the debate on whether or not to have recess was prompted, in large part, to research indicated we were behind compared to other students around the world; it seems fitting to look a little more closely at that research.
Although United States students do not perform as well on tests compared to their European and Asian counterparts, consider also that the United States commits to educating all students throughout high school. However, in many nations non-college bound students are permitted to finish their academic education earlier and pursue a trade. Essentially, many reports are comparing our average student with their college bound student.
Secondly, it bodes well to consider that in many countries compulsory education starts later. In Finland for example, compulsory education starts at age eight. In Japan, compulsory school starts at 6 with kindergarten being optional.
Finally, in many countries like Japan, the focus on long days, rigid standards and lack of physical exercise and free time is being questioned. Japan in particular, has begun to seriously talk about including more free time into a student's day, seeing recess as a potential opportunity to increase productivity.
Should Middle Schoolers Have Recess?
With mounting pressure to have students perform well on standardized testing, more and more teachers are not seeing that the benefit of recess outweighs the time given to having it. Furthermore, most teachers have a break during recess which means that someone else has to come to watch the students. With budget cutbacks, aids are spread more thinly throughout the school and sometimes, there is simply no one available to watch students at recess.