What Would Make Recess Duty Better?

There’s no doubt about it: I absolutely love what I do, and cannot imagine doing anything else in my life. Teaching is my passion, and I’m grateful that I get to go to work every single day doing what makes me so very happy. While I stand behind the words in our nightly blog posts, highlighting that we’ve had another “great day,” I think that often one of the biggest highlights of our day is our time out in the forest. There’s something special about this outside time, and the learning that happens in this space: whether it’s on a bright, sunny day, a freezing cold day, or a rainy, muddy day. So much of what Laura Bottrell captured in her article is true of our time spent outside, and I’m grateful that she wrote what she did. But as I say all of this, these positive experiences give me pause, especially when I compare our outdoor time to recess time.

I’m very grateful that our kindergarteners don’t go out for recess. We’ve scheduled our outdoor time differently, so that we can better meet the needs of our students and have less transitions during the school day. While my teaching partner, Paula, stays in the classroom and extends the learning time during our nutrition breaks, I often leave the room during these times. A couple of days a week, this is also when I’m on duty. I have absolutely no problem going outside no matter how cold it is, and will happily bundle up for duty time, but I definitely do not have the same happy thoughts around recess as I have around our time outside. Recently, I started to wonder, “why.” 

It’s interesting, for if you ask most educators, it’s during recess time that many students with social, emotional, and/or behavioural needs, struggle the most. You often hear the comment that, “[Name] does not behave like that in the classroom.” I’ve even made similar comments before, but I’ve started to question, Why is this happening? Is there something we can do to change this trajectory for kids?

Certain elements of recess may be outside of our control.

  • The child’s homeroom teacher is not always on duty. 
  • It’s different having just a couple of classes outside versus multiple grades and/or multiple divisions.

That said, in my current teaching situation, I’m at a small school, and even though I’m not every child’s homeroom teacher, I know the names of just about every student in the school. I’ve only taught here for a few years. Most teachers at the school have taught in this same building for many more years than me, and at one time or another, have taught either most of the children or siblings of these children. These teachers have connections with the kids and the families. And while our outdoor time in Kindergarten is different, we still have three large classes outside in the same space versus 5-6 smaller classes. The numbers are not actually significantly different. So what is?

  • Maybe it’s the space. We do not go to the primary playground area when we play. We’re in between the junior field and the forest area. There are no big plastic structures and lots of space to run, climb, and play. Space matters. It’s in a more open area, where all children can find things that work for them: if it’s climbing on a fallen tree, running in an open field, or sitting quietly under a little bush.

  • Maybe it’s the push for creativity. Every once in a while, when students ask, we take out a ball for them to use, but usually, we don’t bring anything outside with us. Students use sticks, pinecones, mud, and trees in creative ways. They talk about letters and sounds, they explore math concepts (especially counting and measurement), and they engage in The Arts (from creating their own bands in the trees to making nature art). We don’t come outside with an agenda. We know the Program expectations, and we watch and listen to what the students do, and then make links to these expectations. We create mini-lessons on the spot, and try to extend reading, writing, and math opportunities among the trees. The kids support each other in similar ways. It’s amazing to watch: but it’s often when you provide less that kids do more!

  • Maybe it’s the time. The primary and junior students are outside for two, 20-minute nutrition breaks a day, but we’re outside for about 1 1/2 hours every morning. We adjust the time depending on the weather and how the students respond to the space. Whenever possible, we try to be responsive to kids. This makes a huge difference! With the additional time outside, kids can evolve in their play: from that initial need to run to quieter, more focused, deeper, and richer learning experiences.

  • Maybe it’s the role that we can play in the space. When we’re outside each morning, I never feel as though I’m policing kids. I hate that feeling! Instead, I’m interacting with kids, observing them, documenting learning, and extending it based on what children say and do. This is a very different feel to recess, and it’s the feeling that I wish could be a part of duty experiences!

I’m beginning to wonder then if there’s a way to change the “recess feeling,” and make this time a more positive experience for all educators, administrators, and students. For when I stand back and really look and think about my experiences, it’s often the kids that have the most challenging time outside that really need this time the most. What can we do then? 

  • Could we reconsider the space? I’m actually lucky to teach at a school that has a lot of room for children to play. Our school numbers are small, so the numbers outside are actually quite low. It was interesting to watch the play a couple of weeks ago when we had a lot of great packing snow. Almost nobody was on the playground equipment, and everybody was working together to make snowmen and forts. There was so much incredible teamwork, problem solving, math thinking, and perseverance, that I struggled with not documenting this wonderfulness for homeroom teachers to see. If snow highly reduces the amount of children on the playground equipment and results in more focused, richer, deeper play, then I wonder what else would do the same. What happens at your school?
  • Could the recess games change? On most days, the biggest problems revolve around the organized soccer games. Students struggle with team formations, rules, and scores … especially if certain kids end up losing the game. I’ve tried to help reduce the stress of these games by having everybody run around the perimeter of the field three times before playing. This is my co-regulation strategy for decreasing the problems in these games, and it usually works. We also have a bench near the field, and I call it the “bench of breathing.” If kids are getting really worked up, I suggest that they take a few minutes and go and breathe. Many classrooms in our school use the MindUp Program, and you can see kids trying to have their own Brain Break on the bench. While I’d rather have no problems at all, I do like seeing the benefits of a little breathing for the kids that need it the most. Sometimes I wonder though what would happen if no balls came out. Would kids create their own games as our Kindergarten students do, and would less competitive games, reduce the number of issues for many kids? I wonder …
  • Could the number of minutes outside change? I’ve thought a lot about this question, as I know that there are limits on duty minutes. I just struggle, as it takes kids longer than 20 minutes to settle into play. This means, that we’re usually sending children back inside very up-regulated (or even dysregulated), and I worry about the impact that this has on learning. I wonder what would happen if we used both nutrition breaks for just outdoor learning time. What if kids ate while they worked, or if the eating table that we have in our Kindergarten classroom made its way into other grades? There’s something to be said for the rich dialogue that happens around food, and the additional time outside, may allow kids to better settle into play and come inside calmer. Have any schools tried this option before, and what was the impact on student learning and mental health and well-being?

  • Could our role change from “supervisor” to “facilitator?” I wonder if the answer to this question rests in the decision around the number of minutes outside. Even when we’re outside with our kindergarteners, we usually have to rotate more at the beginning of play, and then once the play settles, we can engage in more discussions and observations. I’m not saying that the duty teacher should be bringing out an iPad to take photographs, record videos, and write learning stories, but if we talked more with kids, what kinds of questions might we ask? What kinds of conversations might we have? What impact might both of these things have on student thinking and learning? The Kindergarten Program Document highlights the importance of “noticing and naming” math behaviours. This is something that could happen outside for any grade. 

All of this may be my Utopian ideal, and maybe considering these changes isn’t even possible. But it makes me sad to know that there’s a recess problem — to some degree — in just about every school out there, and not try think about some possible ways to solve it. Imagine if we could all love duty time as much as I love our outdoor learning time. How do we make this happen?


9 thoughts on “What Would Make Recess Duty Better?

  1. The issues are common at many schools. Some of the schools I support have shifted their breaks so that the kids go outside first, then come in and eat. This change has had many benefits. The kids get to move after the 100 minute block. Then when they are eating they have time to decompress, settle and regulate, solve any conflicts that occurred on the yard. When nutrition break time is up, they can continue to keep some food on their desks and finish up as the next block begins. Seems to be making a difference.

    • Thanks for sharing this, Kit! We actually do this at our school as well. I think that most kids clean up after the eating time is done, but definitely having the time to eat after being outside helps versus going straight to working time. It can be hard for many kids to “come down” after such an exciting start to recess. As the eating time continues, usually the behaviours settle, but in all of my teaching experiences, the first minutes of indoor duty can definitely be a challenge. Very curious to hear what others try and how it works.


    • We just started doing recess before nutrition breaks at my school in December with positive results, too.
      Aviva, your comment about the shortness of recess struck a chord with me. I agree that longer time outside would allow children to calm and settle into their play.

      Three other things we did at our school that have helped improve recess experiences:
      1.teachers are assigned duty in gym each morning recess so there are options for some students to play in the gym.
      2. Make space is open every 2nd recess in the learning commons with a teacher on duty.
      3. Many teachers also take their students out for extended outdoor inquiry time once a week.The kindies have extended play outside daily.
      Love following you since the OTF math conference!

      • Thanks Anna for sharing what your school did! I think that the time component is huge, but that said, if 20 minutes is non-negotiable, eating after being outside seems better than the opposite. At least it gives kids a little time to calm back down before class starts again.

        Having another space for the children to play (such as the gym) is a great idea! I wonder if this also gives more space outside for kids, which tends to reduce problems. I teach ar a very small school, so we don’t have another teacher that’s available to supervise this other space, but smaller numbers outside, also helps with having more space for kids to play.

        Your Makerspace option is an intriguing one. Is this space open for all 40 minutes, or just 20? I’d worry that 20 isn’t long enough to settle into this play, but maybe it again provides less kids with more space outside, which is beneficial. It might also interest some children that want something different to do at recess. That said, when I watch our kids in the forest, I wonder if it’s time for all children to realize just how much they can “make” outside. How do we get them to see this?

        I also love hearing about extended blocks of outdoor inquiry time for kids in all grades. I wonder, what does this time look like? Does it include free play (something that I think has so much value when it comes to problem solving, seeing student interests, and making links to learning in all that we do — that’s where the teacher as facilitator is key as he/she can notice, name, and extend the learning here)? Could this option happen for all grades every day, and what’s needed to make this possible?

        Thanks for giving me even more to think about. I’ve loved connecting with you since that OTF Conference as well.


  2. I wonder what would happen if, for 40 minutes, kids could make their own eating/playing schedule…do what suits them? I’ve been thinking about the extended recess. 30 minutes instead of 20 makes a difference for my classes! I sometimes meet them outside and let them stay later than other classes. We all love it, and they come into class settled instead of still in a high-energy state.

    • Lisa, I love the idea of children making the choices that work for them. It would require enough teacher supervision to make this possible, which could be hard in some schools. I know that in the nice weather, many of our junior students eat on the picnic tables outside. Then there could be more choice in playing vs. eating, as everyone is staying in one space. It’s keeping track of the in and out, which is a challenge. It’s great to hear though how you’ve been responsive to your student needs. I wonder what other teachers do.


  3. I’m so interested to hear about what your flow of day looks like in kindergarten! We currently follow the school nutrition break /recess schedule, and the middle block is outdoor learning with only our class – we find there are more problems during the 20 min recess than our entire block of outdoor learning. We followed the schools break schedule because of my lunch and duty, plus my teaching partners lunch and duty – but I’d love to hear how you creatively worked around this! Thank you!!

    • Here’s the link to the flow of our day.

      As you can see, we’ve highly reduced transitions, which really helps eliminate problems in the classroom. Plus our longer block outside in the morning means that kids are coming inside calm and ready to learn. My amazing teaching partner, Paula, extends play during our nutrition breaks, and we have an eating table open all day. Kids eat when they’re hungry. It’s fantastic, and the discussions around this table are so rich. We can then also sit down and eat with kids, which helps with solidifying strong relationships. Hope this helps! Please let me know if you have any other questions.


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