FOR elementary-school children in North Adams, Mass., there's something important missing from the school day this year: recess. Their usual 30-minute play period turned into study time when the state Board of Education's Commission on Time and Learning decreed that schools should set aside at least 900 hours a year for teaching. Although the board recommends that schools keep recess, it doesn't forbid cuts.
Not surprisingly, the move has upset students and angered parents, who argue that it's harder for children to concentrate when they have no breaks. Pupils who want to play must eat lunch fast, then head outside for supervised free time.
Over the past five years, according to Stuart Reifel, president-elect of the Association for the Study of Play, scattered school districts around the country have eliminated recess. He calls such moves a ''scandal.'' By focusing learning only on classroom activity, he explains, educators ignore all the ways children learn to collaborate through play.
Dr. Reifel offers a suggestion: ''Tell the school board to give up their coffee breaks and see what they say.''
So essential is play, in fact, that it is included in a 1959 United Nations Declaration of Children's Rights. The document was made more specific in 1989 and renamed the Convention on the Rights of the Young Child. Yet according to Marcy Guddemi, past president of the American Association for the Child's Right to Play, the United States is the only industrialized nation that has not adopted the 1989 version.
Dr. Guddemi, whose group is part of an international organization with branches in 46 countries, sees the loss of recess as a ''sub-category'' of larger American problems that are robbing children of physical activity.
After being inactive at school all day, children come home and watch what she describes as ''entirely too much TV.'' A shortage of playgrounds adds to their passivity.
In addition, she says, parents increasingly view neighborhoods as unsafe and keep children inside. Even in upscale communities, working parents may insist that children who are home alone after school stay indoors. And the shift away from neighborhood schools means that millions of children now ride school buses instead of walking.
Little wonder, perhaps, that American children are getting fatter. One study, released Monday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, finds that 11 percent of children and teenagers are overweight - about twice the level of 10 years ago.
Guddemi's own daughter attended an elementary school in Montgomery, Ala., where recess had been taken away. When Guddemi complained, the principal told her, ''Well, the children were exhibiting so many uncaring and unkind behaviors on the playground that we eliminated recess.'' She says she countered by asking, ''How do we teach children these things if we never give them the opportunity to learn?''
Noting that play teaches important skills - problem-solving, cooperation, patience - she warns, ''If children don't have a chance to work things out on the playground, when they're adults they're going to lack very important skills in the work force.''
The workplace itself offers an increasingly imbalanced approach to relaxation. Breaks and lunch hours - corporate versions of recess - are becoming endangered species as downsized companies demand more work from fewer employees.
Guddemi believes Americans could learn from other countries. In Japan, she observed schools where long classroom sessions alternated with ''very intense periods of play outside.'' And in Europe, where walking is important and five or six weeks of vacation is the workplace norm, students and employees alike enjoy more active lives.
If all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, what will become of all the Jacks - and Jills - spending longer hours at school desks? For them, empty playgrounds stand as one of the saddest and most visible symbols of educational priorities gone awry.