Snow Days, Recess and the Application of Some ‘Flinty Chicago Toughness’

Blog Post
Jan. 28, 2009

You can usually count on snow days and school cancellations to precipitate a flurry of opinionated chatter from parents and educators. Today, in Washington, D.C., those flurries snowballed into national headlines (and a few cold remarks) after President Obama added his thoughts to the mix.

“We’re going to have to apply some flinty Chicago toughness to this town,’’ Obama said, half-joking about how the schools in and around Washington, D.C. closed with a few inches of snow and ice on the ground. Mr. Obama added that, as his 7-year-old daughter pointed out, in Chicago, schoolchildren don’t just go to school on snowy days – they have recess.

Funny he should mention recess. Because the topic of recess – more to the point, the lack thereof – was already getting some important press attention even before the snow day digressions. And we think that it deserves some real discussion, especially on cold, snowy days. So pour yourself a cup of hot chocolate and pull up a chair.

This week, a study in Pediatrics showed that recess is associated with better behavior in the classroom. Based on data from thousands of children nationwide, the study examined the relationship between teachers’ ratings of their classroom’s behavior and whether the children in those classrooms had at least a 15-minute break for recess each day. The data showed a significant link between having those breaks and teachers’ positive assessments of their students’ behavior in classrooms. Most troubling, the report showed that children from disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely not to have recess.

The Pediatrics study, led by Romina M. Barros, a pediatrician at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, adds to the evidence on why children should have breaks from their structured schoolwork and activities. Anthony D. Pellegrini, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota, conducted a series of studies in the 1990s to examine how recess affected children’s ability to pay attention in class when they came back inside. He focuses on kindergarten, 2nd and 4th grades. He found that children, especially those in 2nd grade, were more attentive after recess than before it. A similar study on indoor recess showed similar results.

In other words, children don’t just need recess to “blow off steam,” which is based on an old 19th-century argument about body energy, according to a fascinating chapter about recess in Play=Learning, a recent book on the significance of play. They need recess to help them learn.

So now, let’s talk cold. What happens when the temperatures dip below freezing and the wind picks up? Anecdotally we know that many schools decide to cancel recess. (If anyone knows of reliable statistics for recess cancellations, please holler.) Some may usher students into the gymnasium to run around for a few minutes, but others may decide to just skip it altogether.

This varies, of course, depending on where one lives. In northern states, the definition of “too cold” can range from 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. And then there's Finland, where children as young as 12 months old spend up to three hours a day playing outside, even in its frosty winters. But in the south, it might be anything that qualifies as below freezing including windchill. (For example, check out this wide-ranging thread on how cold is too cold at the A to Z Teacher Stuff Forums.)

No matter where, though, the cold is often less a problem for the children than it is for playground aides and teachers who are generally not moving as much as the kids. And in many poorer communities, teachers will tell you, students come to school without coats and gloves. They worry, rightly, that sending children outside without the proper clothing could be harmful.

But given what we know so far about the importance of recess, it seems that these are hurdles that can be overcome on days that are not dangerously cold. Again, considerations of dangerousness will differ by community. But most should agree, especially given the obesity epidemic, that children need time and space for climbing, leaping and running around. We should be doing everything we can to make that happen. Parents should become more informed – schools should help – about how and when to make sure their children dress for outdoor play. Schools that can, perhaps with help from outside non-profits, should stock a deep supply of extra coats and hats. Playground aides, who probably feel the cold more because they have to stand without moving much, could be trained and encouraged to try mini-games with the students that get them moving too.

As I walked my 6-year-old daughter to school this morning, in a neighborhood just outside Washington, D.C., she looked at the ice-covered playground. “We’re probably not going to go outside again today,” she told me, with lament in her voice. To her, the ice looked like fun. As a parent, I had two thoughts. Hmm, ice can be dangerous. (And in this case, it really did look pretty slick. She might have needed ice skates.) But I don't want anything to dampen her drive to play. I can only hope that indoor recess became the default today, and that outdoor recess, even when it’s chilly, gets more attention tomorrow.

(The photograph is of a playground in the U.K.: Compton Street playground in the snow, April 2008)