Nathan: Princeton wisely using research on recess

Remember recess? Was it a relief? Are your memories mostly about fun and games? Or was it sometimes traumatic, with kids picking on you or others? Turns out that there’s a lot of rethinking going on about recess. In some places, recess unwisely is being eliminated.


Fortunately, Minnesota district and charter public schools seem to be making use of some of the best research about recess. I recently surveyed 43 Minnesota district and charter public schools. Thirty-six, more than 80 percent, including Princeton, responded. Literally every one of the schools has retained daily recess in their elementary schools.


Princeton Superintendent Rick Lahn told me “The Princeton Public Schools provide 20 minutes daily recess time for students K-5. We feel that daily recess is developmentally appropriate for elementary age students as it allows them an opportunity for physical exercise and socialization in an informal setting. Research indicates that a short break accompanied by physical exercise helps students focus better and may be linked to increased student achievement.”


Elk River Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Jana Hennen-Burr reported that the district has changed its approach so that recess is now “before lunch, so that when they come in from recess they are settled in and ready to eat and let their food digest versus racing through eating to get outside and play.”


A widely cited 2005 study by the National Center for Educational Statistics shows that about seven percent of all public elementary school first-third grade students don’t have any daily recess. This increases to 14 percent in elementary schools that serve 50 percent or more students from minority groups. Almost 20 percent of schools where 75 percent of more of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch don’t offer daily recess for their first-third graders.


Anthony D Pellegrini Professor, Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota, is extremely critical of the “no recess” policy that some schools use. He explained, “No data has ever been presented” to show the value of eliminating recess. However, he cited “numerous studies” documenting that

· Having a break is very important.

· “By having a break, students learn more when they get back in the classroom.”

· Recess can help youngsters “learn and develop social skills.”


Pellegrini says adults supervise recess should “minimize aggressive, anti-social behavior. They should step in when they do see it.”


Some Minnesota districts are working with a national group called “Playworks.” With various government and foundation grants, Playworks trains people who supervise recess. Playworks also helps youngsters learn how to talk positively with each other, and to resolve conflicts. Outside research of communities where Playworks has created programs shows that teachers generally think the program has

· Reduced bullying and “exclusionary behavior.”

· Increased student safety.

· Reduced the time it takes to make a transition from recess back to classroom learning activities.


The study also emphasizes the important of implementing Playworks’ strategies carefully. More information is available here:


Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, wrote to me, “The focus on pumping up test scores becomes counterproductive when it squeezes out activities like recess. Children, particularly young children, learn more when they take breaks and move around,” Dooher said. “Educators know this from experience and now it’s being confirmed by independent researchers.”




Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, [email protected]