Maine Schools in Focus: Go Play Outside! Recess and Its Benefits to Student Learning
Lauren Jacobs, Lecturer in Kinesiology and Physical Education
As February comes to a close, the days get longer and brighter but it can start to feel like winter is dragging on. Winter in Maine can certainly be long, and of course filled with snow and ice. It is a season loved by some and loathed by others. But whatever your personal feelings about winter, Maine educators know that children need time outside during all seasons.
The benefits of physical activity for children are well-established and include not just increased physical health, but improvement in their social, emotional, and mental well-being as well. Getting adequate levels of physical activity (the US government recommends a minimum of 60 minutes per day for children) is critical, and it turns out that outdoor physical activity seems to provide additional benefits. Children that spend more time outdoors tend to move more and have higher rates of cardiorespiratory fitness than their peers (Gray, 2015). Additionally, outdoor activity is typically more vigorous than indoor activity (Skala, 2012).
Adults have long-known the benefits of outdoor time for children, echoed in the familiar admonishment to “Go play outside!” In the last decade or so, research has begun to catch up with this anecdotal knowledge. Richard Louv’s 2008 book “Last Child in the Woods” brought this message to many, and highlighted the urgency with which adults should care about this issue.
Educators in Maine understand the importance of physical activity and time outside for our students, and typically schedule daily recess to ensure that students have access to outdoor recreational opportunities during the school day. However, until the completion of a recent exploratory study, one aspect of recess provisioning was not well-understood: the impact of weather.
According to a survey of Maine elementary school principals, most schools cancel outdoor recess for rain and most have policies for cancellation due to cold or wind (Jacobs, 2017). The policies, however, vary greatly across the state. Some schools do not cancel outdoor recess unless the temperature and wind chill fall below 0°F, while others cancel outdoor recess when the temperature and wind chill fall below 20°F. This is a vast difference, and it should be noted that the school district in Fairbanks, Alaska does not cancel outdoor recess for elementary students until the temperature drops below negative 20°F! The differences in Maine were found, not surprisingly, to correlate with geography (northern Maine schools were more likely to have a lower temperature cut-off) but they did not correlate with school poverty rates.
Children in northern Maine are not somehow “tougher” or even more prepared than children in other parts of the state, nor are they safer than others at lower temperatures. Indeed, interviews with a number of principals around Maine gave a variety of explanations for their school’s weather policies. Some, even in northern Maine, stated that children not bringing adequate clothing to school was an issue. Other challenges listed were slippery conditions on the playground, parent concerns, and teachers not wanting to be outside for recess duty during cold weather.
Despite the challenges with outdoor recess in the winter, it’s important to recognize the impact that indoor recess has on children. Most schools attempt to offer opportunities for physical activity during indoor recess, but they are limited by space availability. For many students, indoor recess means sitting at a desk and partaking in sedentary activities. Indoor recess days can greatly inhibit students’ ability to get a recommended amount of daily exercise, especially for rural students for whom school is the most important access point to physical activity (Yousefian, 2009). Additionally, principals reported having increased behavioral issues on indoor recess days.
Some indoor recess days are inevitable and, in isolation, can seem like a small issue. But another finding from the research is the impact that cancelled outdoor recess days can have on children’s opportunities for outdoor physical activity over the course of a school year. Historical weather data going back 10 years was used to estimate the number of cancelled outdoor recess days per winter according to varying wind chill and temperature cut-off policies. This was an important analysis to complete because most schools have no records of the number of indoor recess days held per year. It was found that the most conservative policies of 20°F would, on average, lead to over 40 cancellations of outdoor recess per school year in Southern Maine, not counting rain day cancellations. This is a lot of missed outdoor activity opportunity. Luckily, simply changing the cut-off to 10°F would half the number of cancelled outdoor recess days in those locations.
Children need time to play outside during the school day, and recess helps students in many areas of their well-being – including academics (Pelligrini, 2008). Maine schools should be encouraged to think critically about their recess weather policies and practices, considering the reasons for them. Some questions to consider:
- Are there challenges that can be overcome, such as keeping extra jackets and snow pants on hand?
- Could teachers be given choice so that those with a keener interest in being outside take recess duty?
- Could parents be given clear guidelines about when recess will be held outdoors, and educated about the importance of children’s outside time?
- Could another area, such as a field, be used for recess when the playground surface is too slippery?
- When indoor recess is inevitable, what can we do to provide as much physical activity as possible during that time?
It is our duty to help ensure that all Maine children have equitable access to the benefits of outdoor recess.
- Gray C, Gibbons R, Larouche R, et al. What is the relationship between outdoor time and physical activity, sedentary behaviour, and physical fitness in children? A systematic review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2015;12:6455-6474. doi:10.3390/ijerph120606455.
- Skala KA, Springer AE, Sharma SV, Hoelscher DM, Kelder SH. Environmental characteristics and student physical activity in PE class: Findings from two large urban areas of Texas. J Phys Act Health. 2012;9(4):481-491.
- Jacobs, Lauren E., “An Investigation of the In-Practice Development and Implementation of Recess and PE Weather Policies in Maine Elementary Schools” (2017). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 2743. https://digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/etd/2743
- Yousefian A, Ziller E, Swartz J, Hartley D. Active living for rural youth: Addressing physical inactivity in rural communities. J Public Health Manag Pract. 2009;15(3):223-231.
- Pellegrini AD. The recess debate: A disjuncture between educational policy and research. Am J Play. 2008;1(2):181-191.
- North Star School District in Fairbanks Alaska Recess Guidelines. https://www.k12northstar.org/cms/lib/AK01901510/Centricity/Domain/57/ar_960_1_activities_in_adverse_conditions.pdf Accessed Jan 2019.
Any opinions, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the Maine Schools in Focus briefs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect institutional positions or views of the College of Education and Human Development or the University of Maine.