Here’s Why Middle School Recess Is Important

In Fairfax County, Virginia, thousands of middle school students experience what most of their peers leave behind in elementary school — recess. The break is only 15 minutes long, but at Rocky Run Middle School (about 25 miles west of the nation’s capital), the seventh and eighth graders make the most of one of the few stretches of time in school that they can truly call their own. Fairfax County schools, a district of around 181,000 students, has taken an unusual step in mandating middle school recess.

On a day in early fall, a large group of students tossed their backpacks in a messy pile and made a beeline towards the school’s blacktop for pickup basketball and soccer games. A kickball game started up on the baseball field, with a teacher handling pitching duties to keep the action moving. Smaller groups of students headed to the school’s gym, while others peeled off towards the cafeteria to play board games, get in some extra study time with their Chromebooks, or just chat with their friends–an ordinary middle school recess.

“It’s a break after all this other stuff you have to do,” said 12-year-old Colin Bigley, a seventh grader playing the board game Sorry! with three friends. “Playing outside is also nice. You have the option of what you’re going to do.”

Aminah Naqvi, a 13-year-old eighth grader, loves the social time. She was hanging out with friends on the blacktop, shooting baskets. “You might not get to see your friends if you don’t have the same lunch,” she said.

Even the school’s principal, Amy Goodloe, agrees that play is important. “There’s really high value for students and, I will underscore, teachers to have that break in the day,” she said. “We underestimate how important that is as a partner to academic learning.”

But Fairfax County is an exception. In most communities, opportunities for play and playful learning tend to recede in middle school, replaced by direct instruction, competitive sports and tightly structured academic time. Educators and researchers say students pay the price. Young adolescents go through profound physical, emotional and physiological changes; play inside and outside the classroom can provide one way for kids to develop healthy bonds with friends and become more self-confident.

“I teach at a K-8 school, and when I look at these seventh and eighth graders, they’re no different than the kindergarteners,” said Robert Lane, a STEM teacher at the Sierra Verde STEAM Academy in Glendale, Arizona. “They get excited when I bring out Play Doh and googly eyes.”

Lane’s class is entirely built around playful learning. For example, the modeling clay and other crafts were used as part of a stop-motion animation project in his classroom. Other activities for the school’s older students included creating cardboard roller coasters to be judged by the school’s second graders and building a robot that can move without wheels.

In addition to developing soft skills, middle school recess is a tool that can get adolescents moving more at a time of life when they become much more sedentary. With benefits that appear so clear, why does middle school seem to mark an end to both unstructured play time and playful learning?

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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