No matter how slowly the clock seemed to tick in elementary school, no matter how intensely one itched for childhood clatter and sunlit freedom, there was always the promise of recess, a salve sent from the heavens.
But in an effort to boost standardized test scores and students' competitive standing, schools throughout the country are rethinking and, in some cases, eliminating this most sacred of childhood respites in order to further the focus on classroom learning.
As many as 40% of the nation's school districts are considering eliminating or in some way revising recess, according to an article in the November issue of Parents magazine.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, elementary schools still provide 20 minutes of recess--barring emergencies or unsuitable weather--in addition to structured physical education instruction and free time during lunch breaks, said Peggy Taylor-Presley, president-elect of the Elementary Principals' Organization and principal of Russell Elementary School in L.A.
"At this point, I'm not aware of a move to change recess," Taylor-Presley said. "Children by virtue of being children do need periodic opportunities to move about in a way they can't necessarily move about in the classroom."
The Atlanta Public Schools system eliminated recess about 15 years ago in favor of a more structured program of physical education. P.E. classes are conducted three to five times a week for 30 to 45 minutes.
Norman Thomas, policy analyst and executive director for parent, student and community support for the district, said the change was made to provide students with a program that more effectively taught motor skills. Another concern was improving academic test scores, he said.
Thomas said the elimination of recess has reduced the number of playground injuries, but there has been no confirmation that it has improved test scores. For the most part, he said, eliminating recess has been accepted by Atlanta residents.
"There has been no big uprising. There are always some people who will raise questions, but they're more concerned about whether the students can read, write and compute than they are with the recess issue," Thomas said.
One of the leading opponents to the trend is the American Assn. for the Child's Right to Play.
On its Web site (http://www.ipausa.org), the association argues that eliminating recess is harmful to a child's development. For many children, argues the group, recess is an important reason for attending school. It serves as an outlet for reducing anxiety, allows for cultural exchange among students, provides opportunity for solitary play and gives teachers the opportunity to assess a child's peer popularity.
Taylor-Presley of Russell Elementary agrees. Meeting children's needs plays an important role in providing education, she said. And children need recess.
"You probably will pay a price for not having that little opportunity for releasing some of their energy and having a change of pace," she said. "We make sure that we try to create an instructional pattern that will get the desired benefits."