LOS ANGELES — Teachers at Berkeley Hall School in Los Angeles, faced with too many fidgety first- and second-graders, decided last fall to buck a global trend: They reinstated recess, which had been replaced with physical education classes.
"Recess is different from PE," notes Vicki Murphy, a second-grade teacher. "The kids need unstructured time where they can make up their own rules."
Many schools in the United States have cancelled the open-the-door-and-run recess, labeling it extraneous to the serious business of learning. In doing so, they have begun to mirror their counterparts in countries known for high-powered education. From Germany to Russia to Japan, students' days are heavy on academics and short on free time. Even in France, where morning recess was once common, the practice may lose out to more class time.
Some educators argue that play is central to learning. But most schools send a different message: When you're on school grounds, the focus is academics. Play may have educational value, but it's not our responsibility.
Pressure from international competition lies at the heart of Americans' shift in attitude on playtime at school.
"It all began with the 'Nation at Risk' report in 1983," says Charles Doyle, assistant dean of the School of Education at Chicago's DePaul University. This federal call to action, highlighting American schoolchildren's poor standing internationally, led to a push for standardized testing. With more emphasis on tests, schools required more time in the school day for test preparation.
"Recess time was the first thing to go," he says.
Beyond that, Doyle adds, many schools, especially private academies, have found themselves under pressure from parents to expand instructional time "to increase the children's chances of going to the first-rate colleges."
There are also the more basic issues such as safety. Many understaffed urban schools, concerned with neighborhood violence, have eliminated free time on the playgrounds altogether.
Some schools such as Maclay Primary Center in Pacoima, Calif., find that well-organized and well-supervised recesses are a good compromise. Students are assigned to different stations on the playground, where they are expected to choose from activities such as kickball, hopscotch, and tetherball. "The purpose is to learn an activity and learn the rules," explains Principal Giovanna Foschetti. "Recess is not a time to run around on free time."
However, the few experts who actually have studied the issue of recess as an educational tool strongly disagree with either eliminating or structuring recess. Anthony Pellegrini, of the University of Georgia in Athens, says that children, especially elementary school students, need a break from instruction to interact with their peers. "This is true across the species," he points out. "Tasks are learned better when there are breaks."
He points out that organized physical education won't do it, either. His research has shown that one of the key values of recess is for children to find things out on their own, without too much direction.
There's an added bonus for teachers, according to Ms. Murphy, the second-grade teacher. "When I go out with them," she says, "I get a whole different sense of the children that helps me when I go back to the classroom."
Japan maximizes its time
The US is certainly not alone in its drive to organize children's time.
In Japan, Education Ministry officials talk about it. Teachers and parents know that it's important. And students would probably be happy if it actually became part of their schedule.
But the reality is that promoting unstructured free time in Japanese schools never gets far. Most Japanese students have no real free time during the day, except for short breaks between classes. Even playtime in kindergarten is seen as a period for purposeful activity.
Sumie Kakemizu, a former elementary schoolteacher in the western city of Kobe, recalls that it was hard enough to implement yutori-no-kan - a period when students do something other than studying, such as watching a video. "Completely free time? I think it's impossible in Japan," says Ms. Kakemizu, now a politician. "Most teachers are too afraid of doing something different from others, something not written in their teaching manuals. And other factors discourage them from [taking initiative], like pressure from the kids' parents."
Many Japanese are demanding reforms in the country's high-pressure education system, but teachers who don't keep their students strictly focused on academics are likely to be criticized by parents - as are their counterparts in the US.
Not surprisingly, students support the push for reform. Second-grader Takahiro Kondo, a Tokyo public-school student, gets only a five-minute break between classes. "I want longer breaks in school so I can play more with my friends," he says.
Europeans debate recess
Half a world away, life is much less structured for French kids.
Elementary school playgrounds generally have some sort of climbing frames and slides but the children use them on their own initiative, says Georges Fortinos, a secondary school inspector. Teachers do not participate. Middle and high school students, like their counterparts worldwide, tend to hang out in small groups in the playground for the short time they are free.
But this laissez-faire approach may not last much longer. Some educational researchers, such as Mr. Fortinos, question the scheduling of recess in the morning. He points out that research has shown that children, like adults, are most receptive to learning between 9 a.m. and noon. There is little point in using the morning's prime time on recess, he says.
Some schools already have taken their cue from these findings and eliminated recess altogether. Adds Fortino, "The results have been very good."
Recesses are uncommon in Russian schools. In fact, students do not even break for lunch, preferring to work through the day and eat at home after school. They do get 10-minute breaks between classes, but those are largely devoted to the commute between rooms.
That's true in Germany as well. Playtime and social time come only after the daily lessons.
The reason, says Christa Haendle, a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Education in Berlin, is that in Germany's traditional educational system, instruction comes first.
Unlike their American counterparts, most German students in both the primary and secondary grades attend school for only half the day, and for those in the early primary grades, the school day can end at 10:30 a.m.
Robert Keller is an exception to the rule. At his pre-university high school in an eastern section of Berlin, he takes extra courses, beginning the day often earlier than 8 a.m. and not finishing until late afternoon. Though he only has a brief morning break, and a slightly longer one later in the day, Robert thinks that's enough.
Robert's mother, Hildegard Keller, who teaches sports to teenagers at a Berlin trade school, says that one advantage of the school system in the former East Germany was that activities such as art and theater were organized for students at school.
"We had so many of those things before," she says. "That was great."
Today, though, German schools are operating under new funding constraints. Haendle cites the dedication of the country's political leadership to traditional family roles - namely the mother staying home with the children - as one reason half-day schedules, without extracurricular activities, are not often publicly debated.
Even if German students had more recreation time at school, the country's educational system almost prevents them from carrying over friendships formed during free play in grade school. At the age of 10, it is decided which type of secondary school, pre-university or trade school, the student will attend. When students go on their way, so, often, do the friendships.
In the US, a highly mobile population means new faces pop up on the playground with surprising regularity. Recess, despite its potential for shifting alliances between groups of friends, can give children an opportunity to mingle more freely with their new classmates.
Like most states, California has no directives on recess in either the state or local district guidelines.
Dixie Canyon Elementary School in Sherman Oaks, Calif., aims for a middle ground in guiding children's recess activities.
"We call it flexibility with a structure," Principal Melanie Deutsch says with a laugh.
Students may spend their 20-minute recess in structured, well-supervised play areas, but in no sense is the time viewed as additional formal instruction.
"This is a time for them to learn how to get along, how to negotiate rules themselves, how to problem-solve without adults telling them first," observes Ms. Deutsch. She adds, "In some ways, this may be the most important and most useful time of their school day."
* Mary Beth Warner and staff writers Yoshiko Matsushita, Peter Ford, and Judith Matloff contributed to this report.