K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

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Healthy Active Children

  • In January 2003, the state Board of Education passed a new “Healthy Active Children” policy for North Carolina schools. It is available here in PDF format.

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As an elementary physical education teacher, I am constantly reminded about the importance of integrating core subject areas, such as math, reading and science into my curriculum. I have gone to numerous workshops and listened to administrators, physical educators, and classroom teachers discuss why and how I should plan physical education lessons around what is being learned in the regular classroom setting in order to strengthen the overall learning environment.

While I agree that integrating core subject material into physical education is important, at the same time, we as educators also cannot overlook the importance of promoting physical education during the entire school day. As more and more elementary schools are cutting back on the amount of quality physical education time students receive, recess has increasingly become the means to supplement this lack of physical education students receive during the day. I suggest there is a way to make this supplemental activity more effective.

The value of physical education

What administrators and classroom teachers often fail to understand is the importance of physical activity in the elementary setting. Non-physical education teachers tend to think of PE (or even gym) merely as a chance for their students to have fun, get the “wiggles” out and for themselves to have planning time for their own next lesson. The fact is, physical education is much more important to the health and well-being of all children. A sound elementary physical education program can strongly promote students to be active and healthy throughout their lifetime. In addition, studies have consistently shown that regular physical activity can:

  • Reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease
  • Increase self-esteem
  • Help prevent obesity
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Increase test scores for school age children
  • Enable students to learn/practice good character traits

However, due to any number of reasons including lack of funding and adequate political will, and even with all the documented evidence supporting the need for more physical activity (Gruber 1986; Baechle 1994), quality elementary physical education is being replaced with poorly supervised recess time. The fact is that most classroom teachers are not willing, or simply do not have the knowledge to offer their students a proper learning environment in order to promote adequate physical education during recess.

How can recess be important?

Some of you still might be thinking “Recess is free time for the students” or “Why should I care about recess?” In reality, recess has become more important than ever. Since elementary physical education is typically offered only once a week and for forty minutes or less, recess has in fact become the main outlet for school age children to participate in physical activity during the course of an average day.

With this in mind, what should happen instead during recess is for students to have a chance to participate in physical activity in a setting that is conducive to learning. What usually occurs is that students are given “free time,” which really means students are left to engage in unorganized activities where they are often unclear about the rules of the game they are playing and often become frustrated by the lack of organization. This in turn can lead to arguing, poor choices from students and eventually, a reprimand from the teacher with some type of punishment (usually time out). Over time, students may even learn that playing unorganized games most often leads to trouble and will instead choose to not participate in any activity at all.

In reality, recess is much more than free time. Recess should instead be viewed as an opportunity for students to not only engage in physical activity, but also to learn about and build their character, develop cooperation skills and practice social interaction. Therefore, the classroom teacher must realize that recess is an equally important part of the instructional day.

The teacher’s role with recess

The first thing that should be said about the role classroom teachers can play is that providing your students with quality recess time need not be difficult. It is not necessary for a teacher to create extensive lesson plans or participate in a physical education workshop or follow a rigorous physical fitness regime in order to have an effective, productive recess environment. The following offers some easy ways to make recess a more effective physical education learning environment for your students.

Provide equipment.

Many times, students don’t participate in physical activity during recess simply because they are bored. Running, playing tag or sitting down can become the major activities engaged in when there is nothing to do or no appropriate equipment is available to be used. Conversely, when equipment is provided for recess, it tends to be the same thing day after day, such as kick balls or basketballs, also leading to boredom or lack of physical activity. As a teacher, instead try to incorporate additional equipment that your students may or may not be familiar with during recess, such as tennis balls, jump ropes, Frisbees, beanbags, and hula-hoops.

Make “free time” productive time.

As a teacher, you first need to appreciate that recess is an important learning experience. Therefore, it should be treated as such. For example, you would never see an elementary classroom teacher walk in to her classroom and say, “For math today, we are going to have a free day. Do whatever you want, as long as you are doing math.” Instead, the teacher may offer five different math stations and allow students to choose four out of the five to complete for their day’s math practice. Recess can be set up the same way. Give the class a choice of several specific activities they can choose from and participate in during that day’s recess. In addition, regularly change the activities so students can experience many different activities without easily becoming bored. In this way, students will still have their “free time” because they are allowed to make the choice of what they want to do.

Work with the physical education teacher.

OK, now you are probably thinking, “I don’t know any games or activities to play with my students.” This is where your physical education teacher can help you develop your limited recess game knowledge. She can give you several ideas as to what kind of activities your students can do during recess and help you better understand the rules and what equipment is needed. Also, you can ask your school’s physical educator what she is currently teaching in her classes so that you can try to incorporate her lessons into your student’s recess time.

Keep the activities simple.

Elementary classroom teachers have enough work to do in preparing core subject lesson plans, grading papers and monitoring daily student activity. The purpose of this article is for you to see the importance of recess, not to give you, the teacher, added work. Therefore, when you are choosing activities for your students to participate in during recess, remember the following:

  • Keep group activities small
  • Choose activities that students are familiar with
  • Play games where “the score” isn’t the main objective
  • Decide on activities that all students with different fitness levels and gross motor skills can play

Incorporate recess into your classroom curriculum.

No, I’m not kidding. In his book Games Kids Should Play at Recess, Curt Hinson talks about specific techniques that can be taken from recess experiences and brought into the classroom to help teach better writing techniques and demonstrate proper behavior.

First, Hinson suggests that a playground or recess writing journal be kept with daily entries recorded. As with other assignments, “The teacher should treat the playground journal just like any other writing assignment. It should be read and evaluated in some manner.” Journals are commonly used as a way to teach and evaluate student’s writing ability, so why not use the experiences a child engages in during recess to also help promote sound writing skills?

Second, Hinson discusses the importance of a recess bulletin board as a way to further learn from recess time. The purpose of the bulletin board is to show “the levels of behavior that are expected on the playground” and to list “the games the class has learned that can be played at recess.” By showing acceptable and non-acceptable behaviors, as well as what games can be played, the student can have a clear understanding as to what is expected of them during recess and in all areas of play.


Through much research, physical activity has been proven to reduce the risk of various diseases, improve test scores, and build self-esteem in children. However, physical education at the elementary level has seen a decline in recent years. The amount of time dedicated to quality physical education has diminished and instead, poorly organized recess time has most often taken its place. When this occurs, elementary students suffer physically, as well as socially and academically.

Therefore, it is not only up to the physical educator of a school, but also classroom teachers to make recess time as productive as possible so that school age students may still benefit from this necessary physical activity. By offering organized choices and activities during recess, students can benefit and achieve a higher level physiologically, socially, and cognitively. This, in turn, can lead to a healthier and happier person who better understands the importance of physical activity, while still able to learn and have fun during recess time.


Baechle, T. (1994). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. NCCA and Human Kinetics.

Gruber, J.J. (1986). “Physical activity and self-esteem development in children: A meta-analysis.” In G.A. Stull and H.E. Eckert (eds.), American Academy of Physical Education Papers No. 19. (pp. 30-48). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Hinson, C. (1997). Games Kids Should Play at Recess: Solutions for a Trouble Free Playground. Wilmington, DE: PE Resources.