The buzzword of preschool and primary school education in many countries over the past 20 years has been "accountability." Advocates suggest -- rightfully, I think -- that scarce tax dollars should be spent only on programs that "work."
But one of the less noticed effects of the movement for greater accountability has been that children's opportunities for free time and opportunities to interact with their peers, especially at recess, has been eliminated or diminished in many school systems in the US, Canada, and Great Britain.
Politicians and school superintendents view "accountability" as a way to prove that they are "tough on education" and are striving to improve academic performance. Indeed, it seems like common sense that reducing recess time would have a positive effect on achievement -- a position endorsed by educational leaders like Benjamin Canada, a former superintendent of schools in Atlanta, Georgia. But there is no empirical or theoretical evidence to support this claim.
On the contrary, whereas many educators recognize the centrality of teaching skills and maximizing efficient use of classroom time, they also advocate breaks between periods of intense work to allow children to relax and interact with peers. They also hope that children will return to their classrooms after their breaks and work with renewed interest.
There can be common ground between these two positions, particularly with respect to primary schools. While accepting the need for accountability, our best theory and empirical evidence must be used to guide practice. To do otherwise is to squander the trust and resources of children, families, taxpayers, and educators.
Indeed, far too many of the policies being recommended for primary schools have no scientific basis. I am not aware of any data supporting the idea that eliminating recess maximizes children's attention to classroom tasks. In fact, experimental data supports the argument that what goes on during recess periods is "educational" in the traditional sense. Specifically, children are more attentive to classroom tasks after recess than before recess. Attention to classroom tasks, such as reading, is related to more general indicators of cognitive performance, such as reading achievement, so it is an important indicator of the effects of break time.
Anecdotal evidence from East Asia also suggests that children's attention to classroom work is maximized when instructional periods are relatively short and followed by breaks. In most East Asian primary schools, for example, children are given a 10-minute break every 40 minutes or so. When children come back from these breaks, they seem more attentive and ready to work than before. American experimental evidence that my colleagues and I gathered also supports these claims.
To illustrate the role of recess on attention, consider the findings of a series of experiments conducted in a public elementary school, in which we manipulated recess timing, or the time children spent doing seatwork before recess. On randomly assigned days, the children went out to recess at 10am or at 10:30am. Before and after the break, children's attention to classroom tasks was coded. In three of the four experiments, we also controlled the tasks on which children worked before and after recess.