My son entered kindergarten the year I began a full-time faculty position in the Education department of a state university, (When I told him I would be working at MCLA, this five-year-old retorted, “you mean UCLA!.” He had already helped me fill out a March Madness bracket by then, and no, my school wasn’t in that.)
Within the next few years, the American Academy of Pediatrics would declare that no child should have her or his recess taken away because of their classroom conduct,..
I began hearing from my students, who were spending time in field placements en route to earning their teaching credentials, that most of the supervising teachers they encountered were routinely withholding recess as a method to enforce classroom behavior. Teachers would threaten individual children with the loss of recess when they failed to bring in their homework or wouldn’t stay in their seats. And the teachers regularly carried out the threat—mostly with boys, but sometimes with girls as well.
The next year, when Jacob was in first grade, this practice came home to roost. He had his own experiences of being kept in from recess. My wife Betty and I have divergent memories about the behavior that precipitated the worst sanction. She recalls that Jacob was playing with a pencil and inadvertently broke it. My memory is that he directed an unwanted nickname (one that had been previously bestowed by some older boys) to a boy in a different class, either in the hallway or on the playground. Apparently, he got in trouble at different times for both of those infractions, but I’m not sure which one brought the memorable and devastating response.
It does not really matter which of the two brought the consequence I am remembering. He got in trouble quite a few times, and lost recess more than once. I believed then (and still now) that it was beneficial for every child to have at least one opportunity per day for fresh air, physical movement, personal autonomy, and a chance for child-centered social interaction (or solitary time if one chose it). I did not believe that these benefits should be removed from a child as a disciplinary tool.
In the one instance, it wasn’t only that Jacob was denied the benefit of recess. Mrs. B required him to keep his head down on a table for the entire time the other children were outside. No reading or looking at a book. No drawing. No crafting an apology for his behavior. No private sit-down to talk about the offending conduct and how to do better. To me, an early childhood educator before I was a professor, this response was horrifying. Within the next few years, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and several other professional organizations would embrace my point of view and become public advocates on this issue. They would declare that recess was an important part of an elementary school day and that no child should have her or his recess taken away because of their classroom conduct, or their failure to complete academic work in class or at home. All that was in the future and unknown to me.
I thought about speaking to the teacher. I ruminated about going above her head and speaking to the principal. But Jacob had many years remaining in this school. How would my intervention look to other teachers? I didn’t want to mess up my son’s prospects. What if all I accomplished was to let other teachers conclude that Jacob had a problematic or contentious father? What if they thought I was being patronizing toward them, looking down at their backward practices from my elite perch as a faculty member at the local university? After considerable mental churning, I said nothing to the teacher; nothing to the principal. I regret it to this day.
As a faculty member seeking tenure, it is helpful to develop a line of research. Over the next ten years, I developed an unusual line of research. My subject was elementary school recess. Was it important? Was it dispensable? What did teachers think about it? What did children think about it? Was the withholding of recess a useful and effective motivator that helped children stay focused and promoted a positive classroom climate?
I spent a sabbatical semester digging deeply into this topic, including gaining access to one third-grade and two fifth-grade classrooms (not in my son’s school district) in which I spent many hours over the course of several months. With the school superintendents’, principals’ and teachers’ permissions, I spent time interacting with the children in these three classrooms, sitting with them during lunch and watching their activities during recess.
Excerpt from an interview with Wesley, grade 5 (not his real name)
If the school decided to increase learning time by cutting down on recess time, what would be your opinion or reaction?
I wouldn’t be happy, ‘cause it’s fun to run around, and it’s good to smell fresh air and feel the touch of grass every once in a while.
I interviewed the teachers of these classrooms both before my entry into their settings and afterwards. With written parental consent, I conducted one-on-one interviews with a subgroup of children in each of these classes. No other published scholarship includes the voices of children; in fact, they are mostly written at the level of policy and barely even incorporate the voices and opinions of teachers.
Excerpt from an interview with Jewel, grade 3 (not her real name)
What things do you like to do when you aren’t in school?
I pretend my Hello Kitty is real and take care of him. And once I gave him some coffee cake. I’m into stuffed animals, pretending they’re real and act out things with them. The other day, I lost my Hello Kitty and I said, “You’re gonna be grounded!” I found him in the bathroom.
Did he get punished?
No, because Michael, my nephew took him there.
I am very proud of the research I undertook and the material I was able to publish based on this work, and especially that I was able to bring the experiences and the views of teachers and children into the policy debate. The title of one of my articles, published in 2018 incorporates a direct quote from one of my child-interviewees, and nicely synthesizes my point of view: “’Even If They’re Being Bad, Maybe They Need a Chance to Run Around’: What Children Think About Recess.” The second author is my research partner, Catherine L. Ramstetter, and you can find it in the Journal of School Health,
Excerpt from interview with Eva, grade 5 (not her real name)
If your school decided to increase learning time by reducing or eliminating recess time, what would be your opinion or reaction?
I would move out of that school.
It would be hard if you didn’t have recess?
Yeah, because we don’t have a break, and if we just go from learning to lunch, we don’t have time to talk to people. That’s the only time I can talk to people because I’m allergic to peanuts so I have to eat lunch at a separate table.
The reverberations of the work continue. In October 2021, an important report was released in the UK: The Case for Play in Schools: A review of the literature. This report cited my work numerous times, and prominently quoted from the children I interviewed.
It gives me satisfaction to know that my encounter with these ill-conceived disciplinary practices led to meaningful research that allowed me to contribute to future deliberations on this subject. But I wish I had found some way to raise hell when my son’s first-grade teacher treated him in such an inhumane way.
Dale Borman Fink retired in 2020 from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, MA, where he taught courses related to research methods, early childhood education, special education, and children’s literature. Prior to that he was involved in childcare, after-school care, and support for the families of children with disabilities. Among his books are Making a Place for Kids with Disabilities (2000) Control the Climate, Not the Children: Discipline in School Age Care (1995), and a children’s book, Mr. Silver and Mrs. Gold (1980). In 2018, he edited a volume of his father's recollections, called SHOPKEEPER'S SON.