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Nancy Bailey's Education Website: Adult Organized Recess Isn’t Real Recess! How the Pandemic is Being Used to Privatize P.E. as Recess

Children should own recess. Adults own P.E. It should be as easily understood as that. But those who wish to privatize public education are conflating the two. They’re using Covid-19, and social-emotional learning, to privatize P.E, calling it recess when it’s not.

A Brief History of The Loss of Recess

In 1998, The New York Times reported Many Schools Putting an End to Child’s Play. Business people, politicians, school officials, and some teachers and parents were fine letting public schools turn into high-stakes standardized testing workhouses with no breaks for children.

They failed to consider the mental and physical toll that could occur with sedentary schooling. Sometimes these same individuals would say physical education (P.E.) was a good replacement for recess.

In 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote The Crucial Role of Recess in School.

Recess is unique from, and a complement to, physical education—not a substitute for it. The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons

Still, adults continue to deny children recess by mischaracterizing it as P.E. as they also work to privatize P.E.

Privatizing P.E. Still No Recess!

Denying children recess has led to new cries for play, so Americans are being led to believe that recess is returning. There’s much concern about making it safe during the pandemic, and there’s a renewed emphasis on inclusivity.

But what we hear about isn’t recess. It’s adult-controlled. And every report about so-called recess during the pandemic cites Playworks. School districts contract with an outside company for what they call recess when it’s really like P.E.

Here’s a 2017 blog about Playworks.

Playworks consistently refers to their program as recess, but adults organize it. Playworks is run through Americorps, supporters of Teach for America. Most who run Playworks don’t have backgrounds like real P.E. teachers.

P.E. teachers have four-year degrees, even master’s degrees, and an understanding of sports, health, and nutrition. They require good communication skills. A Bachelor of Science degree involves study in health sciences, kinesiology, sports pedagogy, team, and individual sports, how to teach children, and human development.

Organizations Signing On to School Privatization

Who’s talking about P.E. and what coaches are doing to keep students safe during the pandemic? Playworks uses recess because that’s what was removed, what parents and children now miss, only it’s not real recess, and it’s privatized.

PACE, an independent, non-partisan research center led by faculty directors at Stanford University, says every child should have access to recess every day they are at school, and then they state recess should be organized to be a productive break time.

But recess should not be organized by adults. The point of recess is to let children have a break from structured learning. If you’re organizing recess, you deny children the right to free play, a huge loss and detrimental to a child’s development.

They go on to say:

Historically, recess time has not been prioritized by schools for its contributions to school climate and social-emotional learning—to the detriment of students, faculty, and staff. Evidence suggests some fairly straightforward steps can help to make recess operate smoothly and effectively so that students have the opportunity to learn through play and so that everyone is able to get a needed break during the school day. Research conducted in partnership with the national nonprofit organization Playworks has informed these recommendations, which have been tested in a variety of studies and identified as evidence-based ways to support recess time.

How do children compete with this adult interpretation of recess? Micromanaging what children do at recess is not recess. Recess isn’t smoothly run. That’s obsessive! Children should get to do what they want (with teacher supervision of course).

An NEA author also signs on to adult-controlled activities. Note the mixed messaging.

A good recess is an organized recess. And by organized, I don’t mean structured. Structured recess is more like [physical education], everybody doing the same thing at the same time. Organized recess is a free-choice recess with games in specific places around the yard. Everybody knows where to go for the games they choose, and there are common rules established in those games so that we’re not debating double bounces vs. triple bounces on the foursquare court. There also are established mechanisms for resolving conflict. 

Allowing children game options, adults chose for them is not recess! This is like P.E. Why does the NEA support Playworks?

Children are not being trusted to socialize, make their own fun, and work through disagreements. Teachers have always stood on the sidelines during recess and watched as children interact with each other, intervening when necessary.

When children get unstructured play, they get to choose what they’ll do. They might even make up their own games!

Playworks is replacing P.E. while marketing themselves as promoting recess, which isn’t really recess. Safety concerns are permitting them to do this.

How Safe Is It For Children to Play Together During the Pandemic?

Last year playgrounds were closed to children, but in most places, they’re now open.

As important as recess (real recess) is for children, it isn’t clear how safe it is during a pandemic. It would appear that playing together is risky, especially with the Delta variant.

Because adults control P.E., P.E. teachers might be able to plan for safer classes and social distancing. But everything surrounding the school is concerning at this time.

Hopefully, the pandemic will be over soon; schools will give students real recess, and students will have P.E. with qualified P.E. teachers!


To learn more about real recess, read:

Recess: Its Role in Education and Development by Anthony D. Pellegrini and What Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children Struggling in Kindergarten? by Susan Ohanian.


Johnson, D. (1998, 7 April). Many Schools Putting an End to Child’s Play. The New York Times. Retrieved at

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Nancy Bailey

Nancy Bailey was a teacher in the area of special education for many years, and has a PhD in educational leadership from Florida State University. She has authore...