Americans Want Schools to Take Recess Seriously

New poll reveals that parents see school playground as key to helping kids stay physically active, focused in the classroom.

    • December 9, 2008

Americans overwhelmingly believe that schools have a major role to play in advancing the health of our nation’s kids, and they are specifically concerned about the lack of recess and physical activity in schools, according to new polling results released today by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Sports4Kids, a national nonprofit that brings safe and healthy playtime to low-income elementary schools. (Editor's Note: In July 2009, Sports4Kids changed its name to Playworks.)

This survey represents the most up-to-date overview of public attitudes on recess in schools and helps to explain the growing momentum of public support to make play and physical activity an essential part of the school day. It also reveals that Americans intuitively understand the critical relationship between our health and where and how we live, work, learn and play, and that the physical and social environment in our schools have an outsized impact on the health of our kids.

"All Americans increasingly understand that if we want to improve the health and well-being of our children, especially those in low-income communities, we have to reach them where they are already living and learning," explained James Marks, M.D., M.P.H., senior vice president and director, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Group. "The fact that kids spend so much of their lives at school and on the playground offers one of our best chances to help children develop into healthy, active adults who know how to work together and resolve conflicts. Those are life skills every child in America needs to learn."

Some key findings from the survey include:

  • Nearly four out of five parents believe that children aren’t getting enough physical playtime on a daily basis.
  • Seven out of 10 Americans disagree with schools’ policies of eliminating or reducing recess time for budgetary, safety or academic reasons.
  • An overwhelming majority of Americans believe that recess serves many important functions for both students and teachers. For example, 91 percent believe that having a break with physical activity helps children stay focused and learn in the classroom.
  • Nine in 10 agree that schools should be responsible for ensuring that children partake in a healthy amount of physical activity during the school day.
  • Over 82 percent of Midwesterners believe children are getting less than enough physical playtime on a daily basis, compared to 76 percent of the rest of the country.
  • Southerners are particularly concerned about cuts to recess, which is not surprising given that schools in that region are most likely to scale back or eliminate recess compared to other U.S. regions.
  • The Northeast and Midwest are most unhappy with recent bans in school yard games such as tag and dodgeball—three out of four adults in each region disagree with these changes.

“Americans intuitively understand that a well-managed recess can have a positive impact on many important parts of a child’s life by making physical activity fun and helping kids learn better,” said Jill Vialet, president of Sports4Kids. “After 13 years on America’s playgrounds, we see firsthand the positive impact an inclusive recess has on individual children who may not otherwise have a safe place to play, as well on the overall school climate. The benefit is tremendous.”

This survey of American attitudes toward school playtime follows Recess Rules, a 2007 report issued by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that named recess as the single most effective—yet the most underfunded—strategy for increasing physical activity among children.

The new findings come at a time when many schools and school districts are making the difficult choice of cutting back on recess to make more time for standardized test preparation, as outlined in a report issued this fall by the Center for Public Education. Cutbacks to recess tend to be concentrated in schools serving the highest number of minority students or students in poverty, making underserved children the least likely to get this valuable playtime. Consider the following recent examples:

  • In Georgia, one third of Bibb County’s elementary schools—all of which overwhelmingly serve low-income, African-American student populations—lack recess altogether. This is in part because of a lack of playground equipment, but largely because they are struggling to meet testing goals under No Child Left Behind.
  • An elementary school in West Brookfield, Mass., recently decided to replace its 15 minute outdoor recess period with an indoor working snack period. The decision prompted a group of unhappy parents to voice their concerns at a regional school committee meeting.
  • Schools in Okaloosa County, Fla., eliminated recess for a number of reasons including safety concerns and a lack of space—much of the school playground has been taken up by portables that allow the school to provide smaller class sizes.

The good news is that many school districts and states across the country—including Virginia, Connecticut and Wisconsin—require schools to set aside time for recess and playtime on a regular basis, and that list is growing each year. Arizona, New Jersey, Illinois, South Carolina and Washington are just a few of the states that have proposed legislation.

The poll was conducted by Kelton Research on behalf of Sports4Kids between September 25 and September 29, 2008. A total of 1,000 U.S. adults (ages 18 and over) were polled for this survey.


Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful and timely change. For more than 35 years the Foundation has brought experience, commitment and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime.

Sports4Kids
Sports4Kids is a national nonprofit that has pioneered an effective model for using play to transform the learning environment at elementary schools serving America’s minority and low-income children. Sports4Kids puts trained coaches on the playground to introduce classic games that are disappearing from schoolyards, like kickball and four square, as well as new games designed to build leadership and foster teamwork. They currently bring safe and healthy playtime to 170 schools in seven cities nationwide, serving 65,000 students daily, and they plan to expand into more than 600 schools in 27 cities by 2012.

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