The Indomitable Case for Capricious Activity!

Long has recess been a part of our school experience, and long has it been discussed as a “capricious” activity, or more plainly, a waste of time within the school day. Truly, as early as 1884, the argument was a national one, debated among educators and philosophers about the benefit of recess versus the discipline of structured work time (Harris, 1884). To this day, the continuation of scheduled recess time in schools is a familiar debate when it comes to the ever-dreaded scheduling of the school day. Nowadays there are an allotted number of minutes for each and every subject, not to mention the hours set apart for standardized testing.

To be specific, in our state:

(f) 2. Annually schedule at least 437 hours of direct pupil instruction in kindergarten, at least 1,050 hours of direct pupil instruction in grades 1 through 6 and at least 1,137 hours of direct pupil instruction in grades 7 to 12. Scheduled hours under this subdivision include recess and time for pupils to transfer between classes but do not include the lunch period (DPI, Wisconsin).

Every moment is precious, so why spend up to 30 minutes tearing around a playground?

In my previous article, about our kids with ADD/ADHD, I discussed the utility of our frontal lobe to help us get through the day. I did not mention that the office of our brain actually runs more efficiently during and after physical activity. Our sedentary lifestyles leave much to be desired these days, for kids and adults. When I worked in the hospitals, a popular motto was “sitting is the new smoking.” Yeesh. Some of us wake up from a night of 6-10 hours lying prostrate, to walking less than 200 steps before we’re parked at a desk for up to 8 hours, with a few steps here and there to the bathroom (or the break room for Finger Food Friday). Likewise, kids are now expected to sit a good portion of the day, facing a whiteboard or a Smartboard, listening to instruction, sitting in a circle on the carpet, etc., but little to no room for movement. I’ve been in some classrooms where teachers will include 10 jumping jacks before transitioning to the next activity. And others where a “mindful minute” is taken to recalibrate our brain for the next task. And others, where being up and out of your seat is punishable by death.

There is now very solid, empirical research about the benefit of physical activity and the improvement of, at the very least, focus and concentration in all kids, including kids with executive functioning disorders like ADHD. As part of my own professional growth I read the book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John Ratey. It details the incontrovertible evidence that movement is magic, and can relieve more than just problems with attention, but that it can lift mood, sharpen cognition (including memory), and alleviate stress. Not to mention all the biological benefits of improving cardiovascular and metabolic health. None of this should be overly shocking to anybody because it’s not necessarily new research.

But it leaves us in a bit of a pickle when considering interventions for our kids with ADHD who, let’s face it, have a very hard time keeping up with their same-aged peers with work completion, participation, and engagement. What is one of our go-to consequences for unfinished work?

“Sorry Billy, you’re going to have to stay in for recess to finish your Civil War packet.”

Billy’s face falls. He has to stay in for recess over and over and over again. One would think, that if Billy could get all of his work done on time, he would, so he could go out and play with his friends. Clearly the consequence of staying in for recess is not improving his work completion, and it probably never will.

In reality, one of the things that could  help Billy even more than medications (depending on the case) is the opportunity to run with wild and unbridled abandon when it’s time for recess. If I can get away with it, I’ll often write in a student’s accommodation plan that recess is something that cannot be withheld for late or missing work. If he’s knocked somebody’s teeth out or called the teacher a…you know, okay fine, but behaviors like this are typically a different animal. If Billy is truly a kid with executive functioning deficits, we may have to give him an opportunity to prove his knowledge in a different way. Or, his homework is actually done, it might just be sitting on the kitchen counter at home or buried beneath the rotten banana and dirty socks from last Thursday in his backpack.

And these kids live in a home outside of their classroom so what’s happening there? More often than not, I’ll have meetings with parents who are struggling with their wall-climber or daydreamer, and they’ll explain that because Billy isn’t able to do his work independently without 8,000 prompts and reminders, baseball or basketball or soccer was taken away.

“So then what does he do after school if he’s not at baseball practice?”

“Well, he has his X-Box in his room, he goes on that for awhile.”


Take away the sedentary, semi-solitary activity ALWAYS before taking away the physical, team-based activity.  I get that we should hold kids accountable, but I even have a problem with removal from a sports team when they can’t make the grade. There are so many other ways we can administer consequences versus taking away one of the main sources for brain power, self-concept, and well-roundedness.  I didn’t always think like this. It took me a while to realize that our old way of doing things may not be the best way.

I watched this great video [] in one of my trauma trainings this year, about the transformation of at-risk youth after the implementation of more physical activity. Granted, this teacher took the research to another level, and most of our schools don’t have the means or the space to do something like this, but finding ways to insert physical activity into the school day could have amazing benefits for the physical, social, emotional, and behavioral well-being for all involved. We all have to write PDPs, so related service providers (Psych, SW, Nursing, OT, PT, Guidance, etc) unite! What a wonderful project! Because improving concentration so Billy can finish that darn worksheet is soon to be the least of our worries. Let’s take a side trip into the public health arena.

Something wicked this way comes.

As of 2014, 14.7% of two to four year-olds in Wisconsin are considered obese. Not overweight, obese. Wisconsin is ranked 21st out of 51 for childhood obesity.  Wisconsin’s adult obesity rate is 30.7%  — In 1990 it was (only) 11.8%. Yikes. I would make a joke about beer and cheese, but I think it’s more attributed to apples. iPhone. iPad. Laptop. You get the picture. Certainly there are lots of other factors like the fact that family dinnertime is now seemingly a thing of the past, more processed food options than fresh ones, and the fact that most processed food is way cheaper and way easier to prepare (WI Dept. of Health and Human Services).

But I digress.

So to teachers and parents and daycare providers, what can we do? Here are some ideas that have worked for some of the kids on my caseload. **Disclaimer, I am not a teacher and have voluntarily chosen to opt out of the rewarding misery of managing 15-30 kids for 8 hours every day (this is why I’m a school psychologist). Also, I have no children of my own. So these interventions were first academic machinations, then put to good use as the needs arose. I realize that teaching and parenting is no easy feat, so take these will several grains of salt:

  • Find a different consequence than taking away recess or sports. You’re creativity knows no bounds. Consider modifying the amount of work, even though this doesn’t seem “fair,” but some kids can meet your initial expectations and some can’t. C`est la vie. I think detentions should not continue to consist of a room full or desks with bored and disgruntled kids watching the clock. Hold detention before school, and hit the track, you’ve got 30-60 minutes or walking or running. Have fun. Likewise, if you have that kid who has you throwing your hands in the air for interventions, is it possible to add a second gym class/weight-lifting to their schedule? We did this for one of my middle school kids whose hyperactivity is off the charts, he’s not cured, but his grades are improving. The benefits of having a flexible principal who thinks outside the box with these kids is beyond compare. If the student is super naughty at recess and struggling to play safely, get a jump rope. It’s better to have them doing something to tire themselves out versus “standing against the wall.”
  • If you find that they have improved executive functioning skills in one subject versus the other, make this apparent to them. “I noticed (not liked) that you were able to get through those 10 math problems by yourself, I wonder if we could try to get through out DOL the same way! How did you do it?” And implement some sort of “self-monitoring checklist.” Depending on the age, teaching the daydreamer or the wall-climber how to make lists, and essentially monitor themselves is better for everyone involved. The teacher and parent can save their voice, and the student can internalize a sequence to help them to stay on target. You can use a fancy website like [] or good, old-fashioned Microsoft Word. You can make checklists for absolutely everything, and these can be visual, verbal and tactile reminders. Next time you go to the grocery store, have your kid make the list. Take him or her with; have them check off the list. It’s old-fashioned, but the proof is in the pudding. This doubles as “self-monitoring” and time with parent/guardian.
  • Use electronics on a contingency basis. “After school, your first job is to run around for at least a half hour. Eat a snack. Once you do at least 10 solid minutes of homework (for some kids you may need to start at 2 or 5 minutes), you can earn 10 minutes (for every 10 minutes of homework) on your iPad after” A little quid pro quo, but it’ll get the job done. If the student is not used to any sort of limits or boundaries, prepare yourself. Changing behavior is super, super, super hard, especially if it’s your first go. But the rewards in the long-run are exponential. **Note: I’m not blind to the fact that not every kid has access to safe and wide open spaces with grass and good watchdog. This speaks to the necessity of well-functioning/well-staffed after school programs or community centers. The need is there, in every walk of life I’ve witnessed, urban, suburban, and rural.
  • If time management (10 minutes of homework for 10 minutes of iPad) seems like rocket science for the child, it probably is. One of the problems that commonly occurs with our daydreamers and wall-climbers is a poor concept of time, the ability to tell time, and obviously time management. You best do a little “timer training,” so that the child knows what 2, 5, 10 minutes feels like. It may feel like an eternity when completing a worksheet but a millisecond when playing a desired activity. I.E. Time flies when you’re having fun.
  • Teachers may benefit from incorporating several “bursts” of exercise throughout the school day. No one is too old, or too cool to do this. Consider something that kids can do “in their space” but is relatively high intensity. I suggest for the little ones throwing an animal name in the mix, “run in place quick like a bunny,” “hop like Tigger, etc.” These can be for 15-30 seconds in between academic tasks and during more stressful transition times. Have a can of Popsicle sticks with different exercises written on them, it can actually be someone’s job to pick the stick and demonstrate the exercise. Wall push-ups are another great one. Duck-walks, etc. If you really want to go for it, implement a burst of exercise with the statue game, this is great for self-regulation. Hop like a bunny, then freeze like a…! They should freeze for 10 seconds in their best impersonation of a totally still, non-quacking duck. This speeds up the brain then slows it down. Think of red light, green light, there was always that one kid who couldn’t stop for the life of them on red.
  • Sometimes people need help with the implementation of these strategies, but you don’t know until you ask! A lot of times we need to teach the behavioral end of things just like we need to teach the reading and the writing end of things, and it’s okay if we don’t know exactly what we’re doing all the time. I often assume that when I hand out fly by night interventions that the teacher or parent knows where to start, and this is my mistake. It may take a little extra work on the front end to make sure we start out strong.

So, if you were wondering where I stand, we need recess, and we need to make it a priority just like anything else.

Dr. W




One Comment

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  1. I LOVE reading your blogs, Dr. W. You have such a way with words.


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