Life with more recess

We’re five minutes late for recess. It’s pretty typical. My lesson ran over because there’s always just one more student to check in with: One was struggling; one was bored because he finished early. 

During school days, I often feel like a carnival man, spinning plates on every part of my body, hoping none of them crash to the ground.

As soon as the kids are dismissed, my harried routine begins: I check all their assignment journals, lay out my papers for the after-lunch lesson and, if I’m lucky, go to the restroom. Then I look up at the clock and realize I have 10 minutes for my own lunch before having to pick up the class again. 

Ten minutes isn’t enough to sit down, eat and talk with other adults. 

And that’s not to mention the lack of playtime the students are getting: With a combined 35 minutes for lunch and recess, students surely aren’t getting enough of a cognitive break or sufficient movement and fresh air to help them accomplish all that we ask of them during a normal school day. 

And I’m not alone in this belief. 

There’s now a growing movement in educational circles to add extra recess, developing alongside a movement for less or no homework.

Teachers who have added more recess in other states are reporting higher student engagement and more focus from kids throughout the day.

And that’s a start. But I think we need to do more. 


The Finnish model

Finland has been in the educational spotlight, particularly in the last decade, for having some of the top test scores in the world. 

Educators from all parts of the globe have visited, studied and toured Finland’s model for education to figure out: What are they doing right? 

Michael Moore’s 2015 documentary — Where to Invade Next — highlights the no-homework culture of Finnish schools, which also offer some of the shortest school days/years in the world. 

If you’ve done any research into the Finnish model of education, you’ve heard this phrase before: Less is more. 

Here’s where the extra recess comes in. Finnish students are given more breaks, both outside and inside. Lessons are concise and focused. 

And here’s the key: That means teachers are getting breaks, too! 

I’ve talked to so many teachers who are giving 110 percent — and there’s nothing left. How can we possibly be expected to enrich brilliant minds and produce top test scores, when we have our own basic needs (bathroom and meal breaks) that aren’t being met? 

Some people think teacher breaks are just as important as breaks for students. 

Most parents out there have had to deal with a teacher who’s less than perfect. What a struggle it is to have a child who doesn’t want to go to school, or who says the teacher is mean or crabby. 

Maybe those teachers just need to retire. But I can’t help but wonder, do those “bad” teachers just need a break? Which of their needs aren’t being met? 

Of course, any union representative will argue that teachers have breaks. 

And, yes, legally, we’re given minutes for prep time as well as a lunch break — not to mention time for lesson planning before and after school and the occasional teacher work day (in which students aren’t in session).

But is this enough? No.

As I mentioned above, that prep time goes way too fast. And most of the teachers I know are willing to give up their lunch time in a heartbeat if they see a student who’s struggling or hurting, or just can’t get it together. It’s who we are. We wouldn’t be here otherwise. 


Baby steps for Minnesota

As a teacher, I’m excited to hear that many districts around the country and even in the Twin Cities are starting to employ extra recess times. 

This past year, I decided to try some experiments in my fourth-grade class. A typical schedule for us (and for many local schools) is:

9–11:45: Reading, Writing, Spelling

11:45–12:35: Specialists (Art, Music, PE)

12:50–1:25: Recess and Lunch

1:25–3:45: Math, Science, Social Studies

That’s about two hours and 45 minutes of instruction in the morning, and two hours and 20 minutes in the afternoon. 

Those are some long learning blocks. 

Teachers, of course, over the past few decades have become masters at breaking up those blocks. Things like brain breaks, movement games and partner activities have become commonplace. But they don’t have the same effect as fresh air and movement. 

The past couple years I’ve taught reading for just over 60 minutes, followed by writing and spelling for an hour and 45 minutes. 

And I couldn’t help feeling like it was a lot to ask from a room full of 9-year-olds.

So this past year I added an extra recess break. It lasted 10 minutes, door to door, meaning, if it took us three minutes to line up, that was three minutes less playtime. Likewise, if it took the students too long to line up to go back inside, that was time they lost for the next day. (They got pretty good at transitioning quickly.) 

I was blown away by the results. 

When they came in from outside, they got right to work on the next activity. You could hear a pin drop in my room. They were refreshed, ready and calm. 

I was able to teach much more content in writing and spelling this year than the previous one. And we’re talking about a change of only 10 minutes! 

Overall, I took five minutes from reading, and five from spelling. What I gained was far more. 

We went out when it was drizzling rain, and we went out any day it was above zero. I played goalie in soccer, and pushed them on the tire swing. I watched their red cheeks as they hung upside down on the monkey bars, happy to just be kids. 

They came to depend on the fresh air. The bottom line: Kids need to move. They need breaks.


What can we do?

We need to keep encouraging our school districts to see the value in recess — free play, outside, with all types of movement. Our kids need sufficient recess blocks and small breaks throughout the day. 

When expectations are made clear for the students, there’s very little instruction time used. And, in my experience, students are more productive, allowing teachers to spend more time on what matters, rather than adding in homeroom activities to simply “get their energy out.” 

Once we master the breaks, we can focus on our instruction, and refining our homework policies and class sizes. 

I’m starting to think those Finnish teachers are on to something. 

I know: We aren’t Finland. We’re the U.S. 

But with a few simple tweaks, I believe we can see a world of difference for our students. 


Susan Wangen is a Minnesota native and a fourth-grade teacher in the southwest suburbs, where she lives with her husband and two kids, age 8 and almost 2. Follow her blog at throughthetreetops.wordpress.com.


Learn more

Finnish Lessons 2.0: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? By Pasi Sahlberg

Teach like Finland: 33 Simple Strategies for Joyful Classrooms by Timothy D. Walker

11 Ways Finland’s Education System Shows Us That Less Is More: See tinyurl.com/finnish-11.