School Kids Don’t Need “Wiggle Chairs.” They Need a Real Recess.

It isn’t easy being a kid these days: the school day has changed a great deal since the current generation of grade school kids’ parents were in school. With a greater emphasis on school work and testing, something in the school day had to disappear to make way for the focus on more academic pursuits like math, science and reading. For many American kids, art, music and recess are endangered parts of their day. What this means is more time trapped in desk chairs and less time moving around, fewer opportunities for open creativity and more rote memorization. It’s no wonder longtime teachers have noticed kids have a harder time sitting still now than ever before.

One solution suggested by a number of Dallas school teachers is unique: instead of sitting in traditional desks and chairs all day, many classrooms have replaced their students’ seating arrangements with “wobble” and “bouncy” chairs. The Dallas News reported on the new seats:

Some [students] gently bounce on stability balls. Others rock back and forth on plastic wobble chairs that move like spring animals on a playground. Some sit cross-legged on pillows around a low table. The rest lounge on their stomachs on plush bath mats.

It’s the comparison to the equipment on playgrounds that got me. In order to get students to pay attention and sit still for hours on end in a classroom, teachers had to replicate the experience of the playground. What might be a cheaper alternative to replacing chairs in a classroom, which costs between $600 and $2000 per class? More time on the actual playground.

Another Texas school, Eagle Mountain Elementary in Fort Worth, has given its students three times as many breaks, for three times as much time, as it used to. The Today Show reports on the response:

Some five months into the experiment, [first grade teacher Donna] McBride’s fears have been alleviated. Her students are less fidgety and more focused, she said. They listen more attentively, follow directions and try to solve problems on their own instead of coming to the teacher to fix everything. There are fewer discipline issues.

“We’re seeing really good results,” she noted.

Parents are seeing them, too. Amy Longspaugh noticed her 6-year-old daughter Maribel, who is in McBride’s class, has become more independent and writes with more detail and creativity. Maribel has also made more friends as the kids mingle outside.

Who is most harmed by this expectation that students sitting still for an entire day doing bookwork? Boys. As Christina Hoff Sommers, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argues, “Being a normal boy is a serious liability in today’s classrooms.” In a video for PragerU, Sommers lays out why it’s no longer possible for “boys to be boys.”

Boys and girls are made differently, and that difference extends past anatomy. We used to understand, for example, that boys do better if they have more time to move around during the school day. And yet today, we have taken away physical activities and expect boys and girls to behave similarly. When they don’t, boys are viewed as defective girls, who display the gold standard for behavior in classrooms.

The Dallas News, which interviewed a third grade teacher with bouncy chairs, Shannon Bowden-Veazey, reported, “A teacher for more than 20 years, she’s noticed kids have a harder time focusing than they did a decade ago. She blames it on a variety of factors such as technology and nutrition.”

In many ways childhood has changed for the worse in the last generation. Indeed, children are spending more time hooked on screens and eating more processed junk foods. If schools are noticing that their students are unable to focus while inside classrooms, though, we can’t exclusively attribute their school day behavior to factors related to their home lives.

Kids can’t sit in school all day long without a meaningful break because they aren’t supposed to. While adults can be reasonably expected to work a full day in an office, children are not miniature grownups. Kids, especially of the male variety, have the biological need to run, jump, play and explore; and research indicates the latter two are crucial to learning and the development of young minds.

While wiggle chairs and other movable seating arrangements are one way to help students get their “wiggles” out, they are merely a Band-Aid on a much larger problem. Students don’t need more time fidgeting in classrooms; they need more time outside playing and exploring. Childhood wasn’t meant to be lived indoors, watching through the windows at unused playground equipment outside. If kids can’t sit still, we should stop expecting them to.

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  • InklingBooks

    Great article! The only way I survived grade school was the unwinding I experienced through two long recesses each day. And they really were recesses. I don’t even know if our teachers looked out the window at us. We did our own thing.

  • TheCynic

    We not only had recess, but a full hour of PE every day. If the class became too rambunctious, our teachers would take us out to the playground and have us run from one side to the other, making a race out of it, and offering library or extra playtime. We were not only expected to behave in class, there were always negative consequences if we didn’t. Perhaps those actions should return as well as recess.

    • Jeff H

      And somehow, despite a lack of “emphasis on school work and testing”, kids learned more, performed better and were actually able to grow up into adults who both could and wanted to get jobs. Go figure.

      • aberqueen

        Because we were expected to perform and there were consequences if we didn’t. We knew it and we acted accordingly.

  • Certainly recess and being outside is very necessary for school kids. But boys DO need to be boys.

    • Anthony Grillo

      I agree, sometimes it needs to be more simplified.

  • This sounds like girls will be better at spending a whole day in a foxhole #DraftOurDaughters

    • aberqueen

      Sitting quietly is not the same as doing well.

  • Jeff H

    Thanks, teacher’s unions, for backing Democrats who push this sort of immoral nonsense upon unsuspecting and undeserving CHILDREN.

    • aberqueen

      Parents are a more powerful driver of this than unions.

    • really?

      We don’t have unions in Alabama, and our kids still only have recess 2x a week for 15 minutes. It’s a stupid argument to make this political.

    • Mack

      Most states, including Texas, forbid teachers to bargain collectively, thus, no unions. One of the many concepts I teach is the importance of avoiding stereotypes.

      • Jeff H ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ comic genius

        If, by “most states”, you mean “Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia” (according to this March 2014 paper from the Center for Economic Policy Research–see chart 1, pg 5), then, yes. Yes, “most states” deny teachers’ unions the right to bargain collectively. Even if you quibble with that being a 3 year old paper, I seriously doubt if 21 more states have moved into that column since.

    • Patriot451g

      TO my knowledge, teachers unions have always backed recess. Administrators are charged with so much testing that they have cut recess and the arts.

      • Askjrsk

        We need to fire all teachers professors and administrators. American companies must go off shore to hire qualified taught and trained students to full positions that American public school teachers wouldn’t begin to know, comprehend much less teach.

  • MC88

    Recess is like sleep; sleep is necessary for the body so the mind can function well. Cutting physical activity in schools in order to devote that time to classroom instruction is like saying we’ll be more productive if we sleep less because we’ll have more waking hours to get stuff done.

  • aberqueen

    We have lawsuit-happy, paranoid parents of the past couple decades to thank for this problem.

    Recess was abolished because of lawsuits and kids who were undisciplined, with over-protective parents who blindly defended their children.

    School administrators reverted to zero-tolerance policies on everything because of the work involved in getting to the bottom of stuff. No recess because it’s easier to stave off lawsuits from injuries, fights and other mayhem.

    Zero-tolerance makes administrating schools easier but has unintentional consequences – loss of recess being one of those.

  • Gaby Sarcia

    My kids have wiggle chairs and recess and PE. It’s wonderful. As a former teacher I can’t be happier about our school district!

  • EMN

    “What might be a cheaper alternative to replacing chairs in a classroom, which costs between $600 and $2000 per class? More time on the actual playground.”

    Time isn’t free. In my state, each classroom costs about $150-$200/hour to operate. An extra 20 minutes per day adds up to $9000-$12000 per year per class.

    Yes, recess is great for kids. It’s also really expensive.

    • Richard Johnson

      Yes, recess is great for kids. It’s also really expensive.
      Penny wise, pound foolish.
      When I was an elementary school student, we stayed inside the classroom for recess on rainy days. I still remember how much I hated those days without recess outside.

      If you are so convinced that recess is too expensive to consider having, I would suggest that you try conducting an elementary school class 1)with recess and 2) without recess.

    • Geoffrey Snyder

      How does it cost more to send a child outside to play than to keep them in the room? You’re spending the same amount of money for the same amount of time. It’s not like recess adds time to the overall day.

    • fiona

      Can you please explain how it’s possible – that it’s more expensive to send kids outside? I would imagine that the teachers turn off the lights in classroom (saves electricity) and walk outside? Where is the money involved? Thanks

    • Tom Woodman

      I had those same thoughts about it adding to a school day, but then looked into it a little further and saw that the schools in Texas added more play time for the kids by decreasing transition time allowances and other small modifications to the schedule. In the end, they accomplished this without adding time to the school day, and also:

      *Children were more disciplined and focused in the classroom. – Off-task behaviors like fidgeting decreased in the intervention schools consistently by 25 percent while the control school students maintained higher percentages of off-task behaviors from pre to post assessments.
      *Intervention children improved by 30 percent on attentional focus while the control school children changed only slightly. –

      *Academic performance on reading and math significantly improved.
      *Misbehavior during recess significantly decreased.

      https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/08/21/why-young-kids-need-less-class-time-and-more-play-time-at-school/

    • InklingBooks

      You apparently fail to realized what’s being discussed. It’s ‘play what you want’ recess not adult-supervised play with bans on the really fun games like Red Rover and kick ball. Given the chance, kids are quite good at managing their play. As kids we knew that the risks of games needed to be managed. Big kids would ‘break the line’ with kids their own size not little ones.

      http://listverse.com/2013/07/10/top-10-recent-ridiculous-bans-on-kids39-games/

      Never forget that some risk is good for kids. It prepares them for life. I still recall in about the fifth grade when I was playing second base in softball. A line drive went into my gut so hard, I couldn’t breathe right for about a minute. But I still recall with pride that I’d hung onto that ball. They guy was out and that was what mattered. I played to win not to avoid getting hurt. Getting hurt was part of growing up.

      The teachers also benefit by getting a break from kids—time their schools should be giving them anyway—and having more manageable kids after recess.

    • Sharon Sloan

      I was also thinking the same thing. Schools are trying to save money, and if that means they can pay less by squeezing learning time into break time, then that is what happens. Break time is supervised in this litigious age, where a parent would likely take a school to court for not providing adequate supervision.
      I agree with the article. Kids need a good 30-40 minutes running around/climbing,etc outside at the one time, hopefully they’d get an hour out of the school day to be outside, and they are not getting it.
      It doesn’t happen at home either because of the amount of homework they get. By the time the school day is over and homework is done, it is dark. The luckier kids get to clubs that keeps them active, but that eats into time spent with friends. Very hard balance to maintain.

  • James McEnanly

    We look with disdain at the practice of child labor in factories at the turn of the previous century, then we replicate those conditions in 21st century schools.

  • Barbara Saunders

    Adults cannot reasonably be expected to work a full day in the office. That expectation contributes to obesity, road rage, excessive drinking and illegal drug use, depression, anxiety, and prescription drug abuse.

  • Net_Walker

    “Kids, especially of the male variety, have the biological need to run, jump, play and explore; and research indicates the latter two are crucial to learning and the development of young minds.”

    The first two are crucial to developing young male bodies. Instead they are treated like broken girls and drugged till they are zombified fluffy lumps who have no idea who or what they are.

  • Lorrie Cook-Mahalick

    Here they have recess. That being said kids need to learn there is a time for play and there is a time for sitting your butt down and doing your work. If they think high school or their boss at their job is going to let them have recess then they have another think coming. The idea that everything should be fun all the time is doing a huge disservice to kids.

  • pundette

    I work in an elementary school, and I agree completely. We’re also raising such delicate snowflakes! When the temperature — or even the “wind chill index” — “plunges” below freezing, our kids are kept indoors. This is totally unnecessary. Children are like little furnaces, resilient and “running hot.” As a result of our district policy, our children are basically kept indoors from October to April. Then they go home and spend six hours before bed on screen. If you’re looking for the roots of the ADHD and obesity epidemics, look no further.

  • InklingBooks

    How true! As a boy, I found the first few years of grade school incredibly boring. I only survived because of recess—and recess meant unsupervised activities. We did what we wanted with not a teacher in sight. And we played outside in all but the rainiest of weather.

    If you want to see how much has changed, check out grade school class pictures from the 1950s or watch some of the school training films from that era that you find on Youtube. By todays standards the kids look scrawny. That’s because they spent so much active and outdoors. No video games distracted them and the three channels of TV only rarely offered kid fare.

  • Adam Griffith

    As a boy, I absolutely loved school and learning. What is this crap about boys need more physical activity? You make it sound like being male makes one stupid.

    • Julianne Birtch

      It’s more that being trapped completely unmoving for seven to eight hours is detrimental, especially to boys who thrive more when their bodies natural need to move is allowed.

    • Jeanne Wallace

      no , just that boys are wired differently..and are not the quiet ,sedentary creatures that little girls are…boys need motor activities, where girls can sit and gossip and be just fine..no one is equating physical activity with stupidity ,but you

  • Valerie Abramson

    When I was told to take my 2 grade students out for an additional 15 minute break last year, I first thought,”Oh,no. Taking away teaching time”. Well, it was the best change I have made in a long time. Instead of pushing my students through another lesson where they were glassy eyed and had trouble focusing, they would come back ready to actively contribute and absorb new material. After running and playing hard for that short time, that is now some of the most teachable time of our day! If we can’t go out due to rain or snow, we do 10-15 minutes of aerobics with a website called GoNoodle. I join them and they love it and I feel invigorated! It is hard for anyone to sit all day long and have a clear mind. I have difficulty focusing at all day in-services! Having been in the classroom for 37 years I definitely have seen the change in children due to all the sitting in from of computers, videos or video games. They have more trouble focusing and handling physical exertion, even climbing the stairs to our classroom! This 15 minutes of fresh air and running around is 15 minutes so well spent.

  • Renee A. Kappen

    Research shows that if children go out to recess before lunch (as opposed to right after lunch) they eat more of their lunch because their appetites are better! Our school schedule was revamped so this was possible and it made a big difference.

  • Alicia Westberry

    Endless testing and teachers having to teach more at younger and younger levels seems to be the problem; at least in my district. Higher standards, that we’re failing, don’t leave any time for recess or play of any kind.

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