July 15, 2022

Nancy Bailey: The State of School Recess in America is Still Terrible!

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Nancy Bailey looks at the continues issues with recess in the US in state by state breakdown. Reposted with permission.

One might assume state policymakers had improved school recess for children, considering their databases, but except for a few places, most school districts still deny children recess.

They don’t appear to understand that children need and deserve unstructured school breaks several times a day. Unstructured is key. When they discuss recess they usually still mean P.E.

Recess, giving children a break from school and adults commanding them what to do, is a simple concept, holding valuable meaning for children, involving social competence and cognitive ability, in that adults trust children with a few minutes throughout the day to unwind and manage on their own.

Since 1998, school leaders eliminated recess in many schools to focus on testing and raising achievement scores, one red flag of many, showing a movement underfoot to dismantle public education.

Once recess is designed, aligned, and standardized to obtain skills, it’s P.E., not recess, and not always good PE either. Children need access to safe playgrounds and equipment with teachers and staff supervising on the side, but the time should belong to them. Giving a few minutes several times a day to play is critical.

Good supervision on the side is also important. Teachers observe children, how they get along, motor coordination, leadership skills, group dynamics, and other characteristics, but they need to step back and let children run their own show.

Some school districts subscribe to Playworks, and other groups, paying foundations and nonprofits to design recess, privatizing itbut this too is P.E., not recess.

If you’re old enough, you’ll remember real recess. No one ever thought about paying an outside company to come in and tell children what to do. Teachers and administrators didn’t overthink it but trusted and expected children to know how to play.

If children aren’t doing well in school, considering Covid and the pressure they’re under with fears of school shootings, recess should be a valued part of the day, to let them catch their breath and freely play with others. It’s the best social-emotional learning.

Giving children and youth freedom outside with access to safe playgrounds, to choose how they will use that time, is what’s needed. It’s also important for older children, and school districts should be reviewing the benefits of recess or class breaks for middle and high school (Ramstetter, et. al, 2010).

The U.S. Department of Education must make it their initiative to insist that states and school districts give children adequate free breaks several times a day.

If parents want to improve schools for their children, demand real recess!

Here’s how each state handles recess. Only a few actually give children free time on paper. Click the state name for information. Playworks notes the states where they participate.


Require physical activity and recess is encouraged but not required.

Children might get brain breaks for 5 minutes every hour.


Must have 54 minutes of activity which could be recess or P.E. or recreation.


K-5 is to get two periods of recess each day, but it sounds like P.E.

Recess law . . . “recess” means a period of time during the regular school day, including time during a scheduled lunch period, during which a pupil is able to engage in physical activity or social interaction with other pupils.

Signed onto Playworks.


Forty minutes each day are supposed to be allotted to free play, although they emphasize vigorous physical activity. There’s a waiver for religious exemptions.


Encourages recess, but provide no rules children must get it. They post nutrition information and encourage children to go outside.

Teachers cannot use recess as punishment, but get to choose if they have recess.

Northern and Southern California signed onto Playworks.


Calculated a 600-minute monthly minimum of physical activity fitness breaks, recess, field trips that include physical activity, classroom activities that include physical activity, and Phys. ed. 

Recess seems lost in structured P.E. Here’s one definition from the Education Commission of the States:

Defines physical activity and requires school districts to promulgate policies using a sliding scale mandating specific amounts of time be afforded for physical activity depending on the number of days a week a class meets. These requirements are limited to elementary school programs.

Signed onto Playworks.


Provide recess but must fight for teachers to not withhold it from children with behavioral difficulties.

See: If You’re a Teacher Who Denies Recess…

Note: Low-income children seem to get less recess.

New England signed onto Playworks .


It’s unclear what Delaware’s education leaders are doing regarding recess. It is my understanding that education activists are working on it.


Policymakers signed recess into law in 2017, but parents worried leaders would weaken it. Here’s the bill.

. . .each district school board shall provide at least 100 minutes of supervised, safe, and unstructured free-play recess each week for students in kindergarten through grade 5 so that there are at least 20 consecutive minutes of free-play recess per day. This requirement does not apply to charter schools.

It doesn’t specify where recess must be provided indoors or outdoors.


Recently mandated that children K-5 get 30 minutes a day of unstructured play.

However, they emphasize physical activity and recess seems lost in that language.


They emphasize wellness, and here, and recommend children should get 20 minutes of recess designating it as moderate to vigorous activity. Sounds like P.E.


There’s little indication Idaho requires recess, although it’s mentioned that children are kept in from it when it’s too cold.


A task force created a draft recess report, and they recommend schools provide 20 minutes of unstructured play for K-5 and grades 6-8, but teachers can deny it to students who misbehave and might also organize games.

They don’t mandate recess despite much talk about it.

Signed onto Playworks.


Requires physical activity which might include recess, but if the weather’s bad children are likely out of luck.


In their Healthy Kids Act, they mention recess once. They also require physical activity for high school students but no recess.


Discuss recess as an organized activity. Recommend a mid-morning and mid-afternoon recess for elementary schools. Organized recesses must not exceed 15 minutes and any time for play after lunch is not considered part of the school day.


Align activities to learning objectives. It’s a physical activity but not recess.

They state:

Thus, recess is not a time allocation away from the school’s goals but rather is an opportunity for schools to enhance children’s daily learning experiences. Furthermore, participation in moderate to vigorous physical activity may improve learning in the classroom by positively impacting attention, focus and behavior.


Require 150 minutes of P.E. but no daily recess. They offer a Louisiana Childhood Obesity Fact sheet where they mention recess as an unstructured physical activity.


Calls for physical activity that could be unstructured but also structured which means P.E.

New England signed on to Playworks.


Doesn’t mandate recess, especially for middle school, but it’s unclear if they do recess in elementary school.


K-5 children are to receive one hundred minutes of supervised, safe, and unstructured free-play recess each week, meaning at least twenty minutes of recess per day, supervised by appropriate school personnel or staff.


Discuss recess before lunch but it isn’t mandatory. Physical activity is structured and unstructured.

They state:

Recess is an important part of a Comprehensive School Physical Activity Program and provides much more than an important unstructured physical activity break for students during the day.

Peaceful Playgrounds is mentioned, another for-profit that sells how children should act during recess.

Signed on to Playworks.


Emphasizes fun, safe, and active play. But they manipulate it all with Recess Moves! A Toolkit for Quality Recess. They state simply giving children and youth time outside isn’t providing a quality recess. Maybe ask a child for their opinion.

  • Daily recess for at least 20 minutes for all students K-5.
  • Teach positive playground expectations.
  • Create universal participation by offering multiple activities.
  • Map or zone the playground to designate different areas of play.
  • Provide game equipment to increase participation and decrease congestion on play structures.
  • Provide group games, supervised by adults or older students, to actively engage students and help build social skills.
  • Provide adequate planning and staff training.

Signed onto Playworks.


Shape America claims that they don’t require classroom physical breaks, and they don’t object to teachers using withholding physical activity including recess as punishment for behavior problems.


Students get 20 minutes of recess, possibly around lunchtime, and there’s talk of increasing that to 60 minutes.


Schools are encouraged to have 20 minutes of recess every day, but they don’t have to do it.


Talk about the whole child, whole school, and whole community, but recess isn’t mentioned once here.

They do say that children should get 20 minutes of recess every day, but it isn’t clear if it is unstructured.


Their Food and Nutrition Division created a Best Practices Manual, but recess does not sound like it’s unstructured.

They recommend 20 minutes every day but recess could involve many activities to get children to be active. It appears more like P.E.

New Hampshire

Makes many recommendations about wellness, but confuses it with surveillance.

Encourage physical activity during recess periods, and support a tracking and evaluation method to ensure that all students are engaging in developmentally appropriate daily physical activity. 

Signed on to Playworks. 

New Jersey

Starting in 2019, K-5 students in public and charter schools are required to get 20 minutes of recess each day, preferably outside. Recess should not replace physical education.

Schools can deny recess to students who violate the student code of conduct, but not more than two times a week, and when they’re denied recess they must get alternative restorative justice activities to help improve.

Sounded good but then they signed onto Playworks, which means they provide organized P.E.

New Mexico

Recess is not supposed to replace physical education, but they don’t specify how much recess, emphasizing it should take place before lunch.

They also encourage recess monitors and teachers to be role models by being physically active with the students.

Maybe students might ask a teacher or monitor to join in, but it’s hard to see staff intentionally involving themselves in a child’s recess activities.

They also emphasize brain breaks and time to stretch during class. It’s always a worry that these breaks are seen as a replacement for recess.

New York

Encourages 20 minutes of recess to fulfill the 60-minute requirement of physical activity on all or most days.

Signed onto Playworks.

North Carolina

Students are to get recess which is described as free play or structured games and activities, and students cannot have recess removed as punishment or exercise cannot be assigned as punishment.

Signed onto Playworks.

North Dakota 

They mostly discuss physical education. But they apparently have recess because there’s a discussion about how cold the wind chill must be for students to stay indoors.


Have morning and noon recess of 15 minutes for grades K-6 but it is non-codified.


Lump recess together with other physical activities. It isn’t denied students with behavioral problems.


Recess is not discussed at the state level. However, there’s talk about recess quality.

Signed onto Playworks.


There’s no law to require any recess.

Signed onto Playworks.

Rhode Island 

Grades K-6 should get at least 20 minutes of supervised, safe, and unstructured free-play recess each day, however, it might also be instructional time.

Teachers are to try in good faith, to not withhold recess for punitive reasons.

New England signed on to Playworks.

South Carolina

Recess is mixed with physical education.

South Dakota

No recess or physical activity requirement. If schools provide recess teachers can withhold it from students who exhibit behavioral difficulties.


Seems serious about unstructured breaks for recess, since 2016, when the State Attorney General issued a written opinion stating that the legal requirement of “non-structured physical activity” means recess play time and “a break from organized, structured activity.”


No push for recess

It’s P.E. in Texas, not recess.


Describe recess as organized and structured. In other words, P.E.

Signed on to Playworks.


No laws or policies for recess and it’s described as physical education.

New England signed onto Playworks.


Individual school administrators get to decide whether children get recess, but in Fairfax, they’re working to get recess for middle schoolers.


No requirement for recess, and if schools provide it they can withhold it for punishment.

Pacific Northwest signed onto Playworks. 

West Virginia

Must provide a recess or some physical or informal activity for 30 minutes each day.


They encourage school districts to provide a recess, and they talk about creating good playgrounds in their Active Schools: Core 4+ Strategies and also offer open gyms in K through middle school.

However, they veer into a discussion about some structuring of recess.

Signed onto Playworks.


Wyoming has no policy for school recess.


Ramstetter, C. L., Murray, R., Garner A.S. (2010). The Crucial Role of Recess in Schools. Journal of School Health. 80 (11), 517-526.

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