Cutting Physical Education and Recess: Troubling Trends and How PTAs Can Help!

By Erica Lue
kid playing at recess

Since the 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, many schools have struggled to find ways to meet the act’s rigorous assessment standards. One avenue schools have been taking to find time for more academics is to cut out physical education classes and recess. Another approach has been to withhold time allotted for physical activity as a punishment for poor classroom behavior, or for extra tutoring time for struggling students.

While estimates on cutbacks to school recess differ while accommodating a more vigorous academic curriculum, what is certain is that the trend is on the rise. With the troubling statistics regarding childhood obesity, health experts, educators and parents are expressing concern that cutting recess will further contribute to weight and health problems without actually improving academic performance.

Recess, with its unstructured play time and the ability to allow students’ choices in the activities they pursue, is a particularly troubling cut that many argue actually has detrimental effects on students.  In its resolution on recess, National PTA outlined the numerous benefits of recess and physical activity, including “greater academic achievement and cognitive functioning; better classroom behavior; increased socialization, school adjustment and overall social development; and improved physical and mental health.” In addition to these positive outcomes, establishing an active lifestyle in childhood leads children to be more active adults. Because of the benefits of physical activity and unstructured play time, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends that students get at least 20 minutes of recess time every day.

National PTA is not alone in our concern over the drift towards less physical education and recess in school. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported in 2007 that only 36% of children receive the recommended amount of physical activity and stress that recess time is one of the best opportunities to incorporate physical activity into a child’s day; the American Academy of Pediatrics asserts that “recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development;” and the National Wildlife Federation, in response to reports that children spend only minutes a day outside but as much as seven hours in front of a computer or television screen, has undertaken an initiative to get 10 million more American children outside.

Despite the alarming statistics on childhood obesity and the abundant benefits of recess, there are currently very few efforts at a national, state or district level promoting the adoption of policies supporting recess or physical education. This is disheartening because having a concrete policy on the books helps promote physical activity in schools and protects opportunities for physical activity. For example, the National Institutes of Health released a report which indicates that recess is more likely to be scheduled at schools in districts and states with a recess policy in place. PTA members are in an excellent position to “take action” towards correcting this deficiency by advocating for a number of policies supporting more physical activity for students in their states and districts. Some of these opportunities include the following:


PTA members can contact their members of Congress regarding the Fitness Integrated with Teaching Kids Act (FIT Kids Act), a measure recently reintroduced in both chambers of Congress that National PTA supports. The bill would strengthen physical education throughout the country by providing grants to schools working to implement physical education programs, and would also require state educational agencies to monitor and report on the amount of time students spend being physically active during the school day.


PTA members and units can actively encourage their state legislators to support recess policies and programs that boost walkable communities. Promoting walkability in communities gives families more options for active modes of transportation, rather than using vehicles, and ensures that students have safe ways to walk to school. Walking also promotes academic success: a study conducted by the University of Illinois showed that students who walked at a moderate pace for 20 minutes in the morning before school increased their ability to pay attention in class and performed better on tests.


Local PTAs can encourage their schools and districts to adopt sensible recess policies and to keep physical education as a part of their daily academic schedules at all levels.  PTAs can also advocate their local leaders to design communities safe for walking and biking, and can encourage parents, teachers, and community members to lead by their own healthy examples.

Recess and other physical activities should be viewed as an opportunity to enrich the whole student, and not as a barrier to academic success.

National PTA has partnered with several organizations to launch nationwide programs encouraging students and parents to be more active. Beginning this fall, the National PTA undertook an initiative with the NFL, called “Back to Sports,” that will encourage students to join sports teams and get active, and in February of this year National PTA announced a partnership with Safe Routes to School National Partnership and Kaiser Permanente called “Fire Up Your Feet.” The enterprise challenges students, teachers, and parents to get at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day while raising money for their schools, and is a recognized program of the Let’s Move! Active School initiative.

But working towards greater physical activity, while an important step, is only half of the battle in combating childhood obesity and increasing academic outcomes. Healthy food options for all students is also a necessity. Be sure to check back next week for a discussion on school nutrition, examples of success stories, and ways that PTAs across the country can promote and encourage healthy food options in their schools!

Leave a Reply