Guest Column

Recess and the Accountability Movement

by John A. Sutterby

State legislatures are passing laws encour-aging educators to include daily recess in schools.

It is hard to imagine we have come to the point where an activity that seemed so central to my own education is now something so threatened that state legislators and governors are looking at mandates for recess.

In June, Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed into law a bill that requires 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity for elementary and middle school students each day. Under the new law, school districts have to make policy recommendations on unstructured free play during recess. The bill states: “The local school health advisory council shall consider and make policy recommendations to the district concerning the importance of daily recess for elementary school students. The council must consider research regarding unstructured and undirected play, academic and social development, and the health benefits of daily recess in making the recommendations.”

Although falling short of actually requiring recess, this law sets an important precedent in how children are treated in school.

Obesity Distinction

We have gotten to the point of having to legislate recess as two movements careen directly toward each other — the accountability movement and childhood obesity. The accountability movement, along with its testing requirements, has deep roots in Texas, which served as a guinea pig for the rest of the nation gearing up for No Child Left Behind. As for obesity, Texas ranks fourth in percentage of seriously overweight children, with nearly one in five being considered obese. Texas also can lay claim to having five of the top 15 “fattest cities” in the nation.

That Texas is the home for standardized testing as well as efforts to battle obesity through recess is clearly connected. Recess is most threatened in a state that has some of the strictest testing requirements in the nation. My 2nd-grade daughter’s school does not have daily recess. At area schools that do provide recess, it is usually limited to pupils in kindergarten to 2nd grade, grade levels that are not tested.

Although we cannot draw a causal link between obesity rates in Texas and standardized testing, the emphasis placed on tests can exacerbate the problem as teachers reduce unstructured free time and increase homework to boost performance on state tests. School administrators from at-risk schools in many cases have eliminated all activities not related to test preparation, and recess is usually one of the first activities to be cut.

The rationale behind cutting out all nonacademic activity during the school day is based on what is referred to as the time-on-task hypothesis, the idea that the more time devoted to a subject, the more learning occurs. If I spend an hour studying French verbs, then I will know more than if I spend 30 minutes studying French verbs.

Although correct up to a point, this idea that more time devoted to learning leads to more learning is not a constant. Eventually the mind loses focus and the return on the effort of studying becomes less and less. For adults, it is common to require breaks for workers. Soldiers on duty for too many hours begin to make mistakes. Yet somehow at many schools recess is taboo, especially schools with children who are at risk of failing state tests.

The mindset of many teachers (and school administrators) is that if one worksheet is good, then two worksheets will be better. If 20 minutes of homework is good, then 40 minutes must be better. Ironically, the amount of time devoted to homework for elementary children has been shown to be unrelated to academic performance. So for these children, not only is 40 minutes of homework not better, it is actually worse, as other activities (like physical activity) are put aside to finish up homework.

Quality Counts

Like excessive homework, insistence on long periods of uninterrupted study also have been shown to lead to more inattention, thus interfering with learning. Empirical research has shown that children who are given a recess break during the school day are better able to focus on their academic tasks once they return. So for children at risk of academic failure, limiting their recess opportunities is likely to lead to less academic success, not more.

Although time on task has some uses, in the case of eliminating or reducing recess, it is counter productive. Working longer does not always mean learning more. Quantity is important, but quality is even more important. In Texas, with the passage of new legislation, we hope to see more quality in educational opportunities and less emphasis on quantity.

I also suspect we will see other states pass laws to require recess as school administrators feel the pressures of testing while childhood obesity rates continue to climb. Something has to give and hopefully recess will not become a quaint old-timer’s memory.

John Sutterby is associate professor of curriculum and instruction at University of Texas at Brownsville, 80 Fort Brown, Brownsville, TX 78520. E-mail: He is a member of the board of advisers for the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association.