Structured Recess?

For the past couple of years as my children have been moving through elementary school I've wondered about some of the guidelines and rules that their school has during recess. There's actually a rule that kids are to not run on the woodchips that surround the play set. The worry is they might fall and get hurt. 

There also seems to be zero tolerance for conflict among kids during recess. They're quickly told they need to stop playing a game if an argument ensues. 

I recently saw an article in the Star Tribune talking about a local school district hiring a recess consultant to come in. This is a pilot program and they acknowledge that they're trying to find the balance between structured recess time and free choice time. 

The reality is, our kids have very little unstructured time throughout their day. The goal of the structured recess time is to eliminate some bullying issues and include those that might not otherwise be included. Is this truly the answer to these issues? 


Part of childhood is learning how to cope with getting hurt. We all fall down and learning how to get up after a fall and recover is an important life skill to have. Conflict is also very much a part of life. Many of us are quick to think of conflict as a bad thing, "Kids, stop fighting!" I don't like conflict very much either. However, it's unavoidable in life. We have to have tools to know how to handle it. Instead of having children end a game because of conflict, what if they get some guidance from an adult about how to navigate the conflict?

Perhaps this local school district's money might be better spent by hiring more staff at recess to be available when needed instead of organizing the play for the children. The staff could be trained in watching out for those that might be feeling left out and how to provide the children with some tools on how to enter play. They could also informally coach kids on how to notice if someone wants to join in their play and how to engage them in their activity. 

I believe the bigger concern, however, is why this is a more pronounced problem now than it was 15-20 years ago. Were these problems simply going unnoticed? It's entirely possible and to some extent, probably yes. However, some of these issues just didn't exist. Kids had better coping skills for figuring out some of these things and parents were less worried about their kids getting hurt. 

What's changed?

Over the course of the past 15-20 years the field of early childhood and early elementary school has changed considerably. What used to be expected of 1st graders is now being expected of kindergartners. Teachers have to address certain standards by certain points in the year. There's a certain amount of time that's supposed to be dedicated to math, literacy, social studies, science, etc. There isn't time allotted for the social-emotional growth that needs to be happening. Some teachers work hard to fit this in. Others feel conflicted because they know the kids need it, but they're not sure where to fit this in. I think most would agree the expectations are too high. 

Many early childhood programs have very little child-led learning. This means much of their day is structured as well, so there's very little time for free play time where they would encounter social conflicts and struggles with entering play. Without being exposed to these issues kids won't know how to handle them as they grow older. They need these experiences. 

The problem isn't really recess in the elementary schools, but it's overall how our system is working. There needs to be more emphasis on play: unstructured play especially in the early childhood years. Many kindergarten and first grade teachers say that their students don't know how to play anymore. Unfortunately these teachers often don't have the time to teach them these skills due to everything else they have to be teaching them. They eliminate the possibility of free play time altogether since the kids can't handle it. 

They should be able to handle it. 

What can we do?

We need to step back and re-evaluate how we're looking at early childhood. Although there is so much newer research to prove that young children are capable of learning so much, we have to be mindful and prioritize. Those of us who have been in the field of early childhood for a long time have known all that young kids are capable of, but we've also known better. These young kids mostly need time to learn about social relationships, how to cope with emotional upsets, how to problem solve when they're building something in the block area or building a fort out of sticks, etc. We can and should extend this learning of course by providing measuring tapes to see how long the sticks and blocks are, talk with them about their emotions, and coach them through their social conflicts. There's room for both, but not room for everything. 

The next time you observe an early childhood or kindergarten class simply playing, know that they're learning. They might, in fact, be learning far more about life in those moments than any other time during their day. 

We need to provide the time and space for all of this valuable learning, so they will have these skills as they move into elementary school and beyond. So, instead of feeling the need to structure MORE of our children's time, they can have more of the unstructured free play time that they so need throughout their childhood.