Order on the playground?NYC Schools Opt for a New, Improved RECESS

True story. While volunteering as a recess aide at my first-grader’s public school a few years back, I insisted — against the wishes of all the professional recess aides — on bringing a few jump ropes to the playground. After all, skipping rope was a classic schoolyard game, one I warmly remembered as idyllic, carefree and above all, orderly. Given the proper equipment and a minimal amount of adult supervision, my son’s classmates should enjoy a similar experience. Right? Not quite.

Before you could say “you’re it”, a group of kindergartners (kindergartners!) snatched the jump ropes out of my hands, chased their classmates down rodeo-style, and quickly tied two 5-year-olds to a tree — before an authority figure intervened and took the jump ropes away for good.

Michael Murphy can relate. Murphy is a program coordinator at Asphalt Green—the Upper East Side not-for-profit implementing a Recess Enhancement Program (REP) in New York City public schools this fall. The unruly behavior exhibited in my jump rope scenario is the norm in many public elementary schools, where recess consists of a stretch of blacktop, 200 children, and just three or four paraprofessionals to supervise them.

“Pretty much, they were all the same,” Murphy says, recalling the nearly 30 recesses he observed in city schools while REP was in its pilot stage. “Every once in a while there was one that was a little more organized. But the majority of play was unsafe.”

Aside from chaotic behavior, Murphy noticed something else. Traditional schoolyard games such as dodgeball and kickball were frequently exclusionary, with player participation limited to getting an “at bat,” getting thrown out at first base, and returning to the back of the line, where they would wait around for another turn at the plate. “A lot of kids weren’t involved in the games,” he notes. “The best athletes tend to dominate and the other kids end up standing around. We tried to do games that were more inclusive.”

Welcome to New Recess, where proponents say a safe and physically active free period is feasible when more cooperative games are incorporated and student leaders are trained to lead activities. “Four-square”, “Touchdown”, and a progressive spin on “Steal the Bacon” are a few of the games Asphalt Green staff has introduced to designated student leaders, who in turn, have taught them to other kids on the playground. Another favorite is “Alaskan Kickball”, where instead of three traditional outs, half the line-up gets a turn at bat each inning. An outfielder can’t throw someone out with the ball until they yell “Alaska”; the rest of the outfield lines up to pass the ball through their legs.

Does it work? “At first you hear some grunts and groans,” says Murphy, regarding competitiveness and the ingrained desire certain kids have to keep score. “But the games are fun. Once we start playing the game there’s very little of that.”


First introduced two years ago at P.S. 77, the Lower Laboratory School, the Recess Enhancement Program will expand to 20 city schools during the 2002-03 school year. Most are located in Districts 2, 3, and 4 in Manhattan; two of the schools are in Queens.

“It’s not a one-shot program,” explains Dr. Jean Harris, director of Youth Sports Education at Asphalt Green. Schools that sign on for the evaluation and upgrading of recess can expect two weekly visits from an Asphalt Green staff member; one with the student leaders, and one on the playground. “Overall, it’s a commitment to have this effort become part of their overall culture.”

While some New York City schools may be poised for a recess renaissance, the 30-minute reprieve is still under siege in other parts of the country.

According to results issued by the School Health Policies and Programs Study 2000, only 26 percent of states require or recommend elementary schools provide students with a regularly scheduled recess. It’s estimated that 40 percent of American elementary and middle school recess has been eliminated, most notably in cities like Chicago and Atlanta, where new schools have been constructed minus playgrounds. The reasons for the decline vary, with some schools citing pressure to improve academic performance and test scores, while others lack the manpower to supervise free play.

“The only thing on the radar with school principals is test scores,” says Paula Keyes Kun, a spokesperson for the National Association for Sport & Physical Education (NASPE), which recommends 60 minutes of physical activity a day for children ages 6-11. NASPE also likes to point out that what school officials perceive as a gain in academic time during the short term may backfire in the long term.

“A six-hour or longer school day is too long for children to go without breaks and without opportunities for substantive physical activity,” says Judith C. Young, executive director of NASPE. “Time for recess during the day may enhance overall learning in the classroom. In addition to providing opportunities for needed physical activity, unstructured time contributes to creativity, cooperation, and learning about social interaction.”

While Dr. Harris says she hasn’t encountered any New York City public schools eliminating recess, testing has had an impact. Test prep has take precedence over physical education. “Until there’s a Regents exam in physical education,” she notes, “schools won’t put an emphasis on it.”