The Middle of the Day
It’s a cool, crisp, autumn morning as 100 second and third graders burst onto the playground for a much-needed break from the academic demands of the day. Some make a beeline to a kickball game starting up in a far corner of the playground with the “recess/lunch teacher” serving as pitcher and referee. Others dart to the play structure supervised by an instructional aide. In mid-field, a lively round of relay races starts to take shape with the help of two fifth-grade peer mediators. In yet another corner of the field, a game of “Cut the Cake,” led by a special education teacher, quickly grows from a group of three to a group of 23. Children move in and out of games with ease. There are no lengthy debates about rules, no fights about who can play, no tears. There are no children wandering aimlessly about, and for those who prefer a quieter break in the day, there is a supply of books, paper, and markers under a nearby maple tree. It’s an active, playful, and peaceful 25 minutes, and children and adults leave it feeling refreshed and relaxed.
While this scenario may sound too good to be true, it’s actually a fairly typical fall recess at our school. It’s the result of a concerted effort that began two years ago to address the recurring conflicts and tensions that surfaced daily during recess and lunch.
During previous years, we had worked hard as a whole staff to improve the learning climate in our school. While we had made great strides, one part of the day—the midday recess/lunchtime—remained problematic.
Not only was recess filled with conflicts that inevitably made their way back into the classroom, but many students simply had no idea what to do during this time. Hesitant to join one of the highly competitive and physical games that typically dominated recess, they wandered aimlessly around the playground, interacting with no one. The resulting feelings of alienation often led to conflicts later in the day.
Lunchtime was not much better. It was noisy and chaotic and filled with mishaps. Children often felt excluded, and there was a glaring lack of consistency between the expectations in the classroom and those in the lunchroom.
Adults were spending far too much time writing and sending home discipline notes, and everyone—teachers, parents, and students—felt frustrated. Our staff decided that it was time to confront the problems. Here’s how we approached them.
Phase One: Getting Started
During the first year, we reflected on the problems, explored possible solutions, and took a few initial steps toward improving recess and lunch.
Reordering the middle of the day
One of the first changes we made was to reverse the order of recess and lunch so that children went outside and played before coming inside to eat. In his book Time to Teach, Time to Learn, Chip Wood, Northeast Foundation for Children co-founder, urges schools to make this change because of his belief that eating first and then going out to play is “disruptive to both the educational system and the digestive system. Better to work up an appetite with exercise, come in to eat, settle down and take a rest.”
After making this change for two out of the three recess/ lunch periods (schedule constraints prevented changing the third), teachers immediately noticed a positive change in students’ emotions and demeanor when they reentered the classroom after lunch. Also, there were fewer conflicts in the lunchroom and on the playground, and those that occurred were mediated more quickly.
Improving K–1 recess first
At the same time, we began having whole-staff brainstorms about recess and lunch: How could we structure recess to make it more enjoyable and safe for all students? How could we make lunch calmer and more relaxing for everyone?
As a first step, we decided to focus on improving the kindergarten/ first grade recess. The plan was to increase the number of adults on the playground and to give them more active roles.
Previously there were two adults on the playground and their involvement was limited to intervening when problems arose. Now there would be four adults and each one would lead a different game or activity which students would be required to either participate in or watch.
While we didn’t have the funds to hire two additional staff members for recess, we were able to make changes in our schedules so that two instructional assistants could be at recess in addition to the two paraprofessionals already there. I also made an effort to be there whenever possible, as did the behavior management teacher. After trying this plan for a few weeks, there was such a dramatic improvement in the quality of play and social interactions that we knew we were on the right track.
Phase Two: Taking it to the Next Step
Encouraged by these early successes and eager for more widespread improvements, I made contact over the summer with all the adults who would be involved with recess and lunch. I shared my excitement about further improving this time of the day and invited their input. This group met before school began to solidify plans and to prepare for the first days of school. Here are the key ideas we set into motion at the beginning of the year.
A change in title
We felt it was important to change the titles of certain members of the group from “paraprofessionals” to “recess/lunch teachers.” This title more accurately reflected their role and our belief in the words of Chip Wood, that “teaching recess and lunch is just as important as teaching reading and math.” Additional members of the group, including the behavior management teacher, several instructional aides, and myself also began to see themselves as “recess/lunch teachers” during the middle of the day.
In the first week of school, recess/lunch teachers were paired with individual classes, grades K–5, during recess. The adults taught one game a day. We chose games that encouraged cooperation and could be played independently by the students. Every student was expected either to participate actively or to keenly observe the games.
During this stage, I received several phone calls from concerned parents who wondered why their child “didn’t have recess anymore” or “had to play a game during recess.”
I addressed these concerns as they arose and I also included information in our September and October parent newsletters explaining our rationale and plans for teaching recess and lunch. For the most part, families were very supportive of this new approach.
Opening of the play structure
At the same time that games were being taught on the playground, we were teaching individual classes how to use and care for the play structure.
At the start of the school year, the play structure was wrapped in orange construction tape with a large CLOSED sign hanging in the center. Each day a different class was chosen to do an exploration of the structure led by one of the recess/lunch teachers. Each part of the structure was explored, its potential uses discussed, demonstrated and practiced. Rules for safety were talked about, written up, and sent to every staff member and classroom. The structure was opened once this was done with every class.
During the first four days of school, classroom teachers accompanied their classes to the cafeteria in the morning to practice lunch. Several recess/lunch teachers were present, including myself, to explain and model everything from lunchroom procedures—such as where to go to get your lunch, what to take when you get there, what to do if you forget something—to table manners, including where and how to sit at tables and what you might want to talk about. Not only did children enjoy this modeling, but it also made an immediate positive impact on their behavior at lunch.
Reflecting and revising
Then, every Friday, the recess/lunch team met to talk about how things were going and to make changes as needed. Should there be more supervision? Less supervision? While our ultimate goal was for the children to increase their independence during recess and lunch, we were careful not to pull out support too soon.
By the end of the second week of school, we all agreed that the fourth/fifth grade recess was running smoothly. While there was still some adult involvement in the games, the children were for the most part organizing their own games and doing so in a friendly and inclusive way.
Several weeks later, we felt that the second/third grade recess was also ready for more independence. We began by offering them a “choice” day on Fridays when children practiced leading games and had access to recess equipment such as jump ropes and balls. Student mediators, who had been participating in the games up to this point, were now being asked to lead them. Meanwhile, it was decided not to make any changes in the kindergarten/first grade recess for the time being. The high degree of adult involvement still seemed essential for this younger group.
* * *
Many people notice that lunch is calmer and recess more peaceful this year. Teachers comment that there is greater consistency in the rules throughout the school. Perhaps most importantly, children seem more relaxed during recess and lunch. Because of this, the middle of the day truly does offer a break from the demands of academics. It’s a time for children to rest and recharge. When they return to the classroom, they are ready to learn. It has taken a strong team effort to reach this point, an effort that everyone agrees has been well worth the time and energy.
Gail Healy is the Principal at Four Corners Elementary School, Greenfield, MA
Recess Games and Activities
Everyone Wins! Cooperative Games and Activities
By Sambhava and Josette Luvmour
$8.95, 100 pages, New Society Publishers, 1990
Great Games to Play with Groups
By Frank W. Harris
$10.99, 96 pages, Fearon Teacher Aids, 1990
Call 800-421-5533 for more information.
The Outrageous Outdoor Games Book
By Bob Gregson
$16.00, 192 pages, Fearon Teacher Aids, 1984
Elementary Teacher’s Handbook of Indoor and Outdoor Games
By Art Kamiya
$27.95, 240 pages, Parker Publishing Company, 1985
The Cooperative Sports & Games Book:
Challenge Without Competition
By Terry Orlick
$21.00, 129 pages, Pantheon Books, 1978
The Second Cooperative Sports & Games Book
By Terry Orlick
$22.00, 267 pages, Pantheon Books, 1982