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Nancy Bailey's Education Website: Will The Real Recess Stand Up? It’s NOT Playworks, Phys. Ed., Meditating, or Brain Breaks!

The lack of breaks for children and the misrepresentation of what constitutes recess continues to flourish.

School reformers try unsuccessfully to replace recess. But recess is not Playworks, Phys.Ed., meditation, or Brain Breaks controlled by adults who tell children what to do, denying them the ability to learn academic and social skills that recess provides when children are free to learn.

Recess is unstructured play. It’s supervised (supervision is critical) but not controlled by adults. It’s one of the easiest and inexpensive ways to help children flourish in school, and studies have highlighted its importance.

Removing recess from the school day involved one of the terrible school reforms in the ’90s connected to high-stakes standardized tests, with the bizarre belief (see A Nation at Risk) that children need more classwork without breaks.

After a while, adults realized the severe health problems that could arise if children don’t have breaks. Still, now they focus on physical activity and need to understand the significance of the critical social interactions children learn during recess.

In some places like Florida, parents have had to fight for a recess mandate, where they are always at risk of losing even 20 minutes of recess. Fortunately, the legislature allowed 20 minutes for now!

Recess involves unstructured play. As Mr. Rogers said, Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is the work of childhood.

Conflict resolution and working out difficulties are critical parts of recess and another critical variable involving what children learn with unstructured play.


The Pulse’s reporter Grant Hill, a Philadelphia NPR/PBS station, recently reviewed recess and its role in conflict resolution, especially after COVID-19. In Getting Better at Resolving Conflict, the recess discussions are at the end, and Hill covers recess’s importance. I get a short spot criticizing Playworks. The CEO misinterprets what recess involves and seems not to understand the impact of controlling what children do. This is not actual recess.

Playworks is a nonprofit run by volunteers from Americorps. It cashes in with donations from various outside corporations, people who likely confuse actual recess with an organized version of what is like Phys. Ed.

If charitable organizations were looking to assist with play and actual recess, they’d seek out poor schools with lousy playgrounds and fund those or find a way to offer children actual recess.

It’s also insulting to hear volunteers in a nonprofit getting donations and tax dollars say one of their purposes is to show teachers the importance of play. If Americorps volunteers want to work with children, they might consider becoming teachers.

Playworks is not alone in skewing the meaning of recess. Recess has been replaced with other inadequate substitutes like Phys. Ed., meditation, and Brain Breaks. Some classes have children sitting on bouncy balls, thinking that nonstop balancing keeps them on their toes!

Phys. Ed.   

Teachers prepare in college for physical education, studying kinesiology, physiology, physical therapy, nutrition and health, weight control, and more, and Phys. Ed is important, but it is a regular class and not a break from studying. It is not recess.

SHAPE America is another nonprofit that seems like Phys. Ed. It isn’t recess.


Meditation may be helpful to those who need to quiet their minds, but a recent UK study claims it wasn’t beneficial for children and might be harmful. Meditation is unrelated to recess, where children mingle with other children and learn social skills.

Brain Breaks 

Teachers know all kinds of methods that give children quick breaks from learning, but no matter what they are, they are not recess.

If you are older, think back. Recess once included a break before school started if students got to school early, a midmorning break, a lunch break, and a mid-afternoon break. Breaks often occurred in winter when students had to dress prepared but returned to class ready to learn! While recess involved supervision, children were permitted to play without interference unless they misbehaved or were in danger of getting hurt.

Recess is a messy business; children sometimes react differently than adults expect. Still, unless they’re bullying, being bullied, or in physical danger, they should be able to work out their differences.

Teachers learn much about students by observing how they act at recess, how they play with others, or whether children need to step away from the fray. They can help students after recess or step in if there is conflict to help children better understand each other.

When adults refuse to allow children unstructured recess breaks during the day, if they always control what children do, they show children they don’t trust them. Children can navigate and master the following skills on their own terms without adult interference.

They need to learn from their classmates that X’s behavior brings about Y’s reaction. It is less meaningful when adults lecture them about how to behave and force them to follow their orders.

With unstructured recess children learn how to:

  • actively listen to learn how others feel.
  • be polite and learn how to gain acceptance.
  • accept others.
  • accommodate other children.
  • avoid off-putting behaviors.
  • collaborate to work out problems.
  • communicate to speak, be heard, or listen (not interrupt).
  • compete figuring out what it means to win or lose.
  • compromise to give to get.
  • create their games and play innovations.
  • follow rules on their own.
  • take turns so everyone has a chance to play.
  • rest away from interactions and school work.

It’s only through recess, where children are supervised but enjoy unstructured play, that they learn the essential skills that come with thinking and working independently.

If adults tell students how to do the above it’s less meaningful, because everything is worked out for them.

Teachers, paraprofessionals, or parent volunteers who understand recess and all there is to learn about it should carefully watch and supervise children on the side so they can ensure that no one gets hurt.

They should also consider it an honor if children ask them to join in. Children’s joy is seeing their teacher trusting them to make choices.

Teachers can glean valuable information about children and how they play, and they can work to connect children after recess in the class setting and hear what children have to say about their play adventures.

Playworks, Phys. Ed., mindfulness meditation, and brain breaks are not recess, no matter what anyone says. They are being used to replace unstructured play and sometimes privatize public education.


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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...