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Professional Opinion

The play’s the thing for elementary ed

All work and no play doesn’t help child development
Lori Koerner is the principal at Tremont Elementary, part of the Patchogue-Medford School District in New York.
Lori Koerner is the principal at Tremont Elementary, part of the Patchogue-Medford School District in New York.

Play is not a luxury; it is a necessity. In many districts across the United States, recess in elementary school is being questioned, reduced and even eliminated to increase instructional time.

The assumption behind this is that Common Core has placed more pressure on teachers and students to score better in the classroom.

There has been little research that has proven that more time in the classroom, and less time at recess, equals better academic outcomes for children.

In 1983, “A Nation at Risk” misleadingly alarmed our country, reporting that the educational foundations of our society were being eroded by mediocrity. Since that time, there have been numerous reforms of our American education system, none of which have improved the quality of education for all children.

Throughout the last 20 years, we have seen states raise graduation requirements, compete for funding and implement a faulty accountability system for educators based on test scores.

The No Child Left Behind Act left many children behind and left teachers questioning their practices. Common Core narrowed curriculum and forced teachers to read from the scripts of packaged programs. The big business model and money pit has created a dangerously antiquated system.

In the wake of this hysteria, we have caused the destruction of American public education. In an effort to meet federal and state standards, recess may be phased out. Yet the reality is that recess may not be the problem; it may be the solution.

Recess and brain breaks

Educators and policymakers need to transform our American education system. By looking to countries around the world, such as Finland, that are global leaders in education, and learning from and collaborating with them, we will have a better understanding of how to prepare our students as successful citizens in a global society.

Educating children by helping them to develop social competencies, emotional well-being and physical abilities while teaching them how to communicate, collaborate and solve problems is the best gift we can give to our children.

How do we do this?

We must offer elementary school students ample time for recess—the CDC recommends at least 60 minutes—and brain breaks of five to 15 minutes between sustained instruction. These breaks will optimize attention to learning and, as a result, students will be better able to perform their academic tasks.

I speak from experience. As an educator for three decades, and having spent the first 26 years of my career as an elementary school teacher on all levels, I am well-versed in curriculum, design and best instructional practice.

As an adjunct professor, I know that we need a complete overhaul in our teacher training.

As an administrator involved in shifting the paradigm of my current district, I have, with my team, implemented all of what has been recommended here.

  • Every student in our school receives formal yoga instruction.
  • Students have 30 minutes for lunch and 50 minutes for recess every day.
  • Brain breaks are used to refocus students, without a loss of instructional time. In fact, we have increased instructional time.
  • We take an interdisciplinary approach to curriculum, with thematic units at the center of our instruction. Attendance is up and behavior referrals are down. Our Discovery Center houses life-sized blocks for building and creating.
  • We go outside in the snow. We get dirty.
  • We cooperate. We realize that mistakes are proof that we are trying.
  • We offer students time to explore their talents and passions, and we are bringing Career Technical Education to our high school, so that every student has an opportunity to achieve.

Let’s look to the great developmental psychologists—Maslow, Paiget, Vygotsky and Gardner—and remind ourselves of the true purpose of education. When we supply the building blocks, the rest will be history.


Lori Koerner is the principal at Tremont Elementary, part of the Patchogue-Medford School District in New York.