Recess Reboot: A Brief History of Recess


“Recess!” aired on public radio from 2001-2008 as a daily, three-minute program for adults that explored the dynamic cultures of childhood, past and present, and around the world.  Created, produced, and hosted by author/professor John Cech, Recess! became a regular voice on public radio on behalf of children’s culture and its vital, lasting importance.  From ghosts to good luck charms, comic books to career day to the curious origins of jump rope (and jump rope rhymes), mothers, monsters, Super Mario Brothers, inventions, labor, and love, Recess! explored the wide world of children’s culture, keeping alive, for a few minutes a day, that spirit of childhood that is so crucial to our children and to our future.

Taking up this mission, Swampish will periodically re-feature Recess! pieces from the past, beginning with this brief history of “recess” itself, by Lauren Brosnihan.

N.Y. Playground


By: Lauren Brosnihan

When you ask a child what their favorite subject in school is, the answer is often, “Recess.” As far back as 1884, in a paper delivered before the Department of Superintendents of the National Education Association, the philosopher and educator, W. T. Harris, debated the question of the retention or abolition of recess. He addressed the moral arguments against recess by saying the physical needs of the student outweigh the concerns over the loss of discipline in the school-room and the possible association of pupils with fellow pupils of “worse character.” 1 He declared that the “chief use of the recess is its complete suspension of the tension of the will power and the surrender to caprice for a brief interval.” 2

One hundred and five years later in the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, adults are still trying to defend this time of “caprice.” Article 31 of that document “recognize[s] the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child….” It also asks nations to “respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life” by encouraging ” appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.”3

In an era obsessed with test scores and possible legal liabilities, it is important to keep these ideals alive in our schools. Sandra Waite-Stupiansky and Marcia Findlay have written an overview article, entitled “The Fourth R: Recess and its Link to Learning” They have compiled and commented on pertinent research studies over the last twenty years on the importance of recess and “free play” from several different fields of inquiry including: brain development and the connections between physical activity, attention spans, and memory. Waite-Stupiansky and Findlay conclude that “daily outdoor reces is the single venue that provides students with the irreplaceable and unparalleled opportunity to refresh their brains, exercise their hearts and muscles, choose thier own activities, make friends, work out problems and have fun. Recess is the fourth “R” because it helps children learn the other three. ”

For many adults, recess has been replaced with the coffee break; but many companies have also found that adding a gym or playing field at the office and providing and encouraging participation in sports and games is good for employee health, morale and productivity. Maybe, we all still need recess.


1.Harris, T.W. grid 8.
2.Ibid., grid 2.
3.United Nations


Harris, T.W., “Recess: a Paper read by W.T. Harris before the Department of Superintendents of the National Educational Association at Washington, February 13, 1884,” History of Education, Popular Education Document No.20, Fiche 3727.

United Nations. Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights. Convention on the Rights of the Child. January 2003

Waite-Stupiansky, Sandra and Marcia Findley. “The Fourth R: Recess and its Link to Learning” Educational Forum 66.1 (2001): 16-25.

Photo: “N.Y. Playground,” Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.  Available through The Commons.

Copyright 2003 © Lauren Brosnihan

View the entire Recess! archive here.


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