What Is The Play Penalty? What Can We Do About It?

The Play Penalty

Did you know that students at underperforming schools have less time to play? It’s called, “The Play Penalty”. You should know about this problem.

We need to give our kids more time to be kids.

The Play Penalty: When Children Can’t Play

I teach 7th grade English in South Los Angeles. As I write this, I can tell you that my brain is overloaded. It is March 2023. We started spring semester on January 9th this year. Our calendar is jam-packed with testing.

As I searched for lesson ideas for my classes, I started reading on the importance of play and I stumbled across an EdSource article on the idea of “play equity”.

The author writes, “New data shows that as household income increases, so do activity levels. Children from homes with income under $35,000 a year play far less as they are unable to access the resources they need to be active and healthy.”

It is an article I have thought about for a while. After reading the article, I spent time looking at our middle school schedule and the inequity in our school.

This is what the play penalty looks like this year:

Spring semester:

  • January 9th through January 20th: District mandated ELA STAR preparation
  • January 10th-January 19th: Math STAR Testing
  • January 20th- January 31st: ELA STAR Testing
  • February 1st- February 10th: Math IAB Testing
  • February 11th- February 23rd: ELA IAB Testing
  • February 25th- March 22nd: ELPAC Testing (40% of our students need to reclassify)
  • March 23rd- March 30th: ELPAC Makeup Testing
  • Spring Break
  • April: SBAC Preparation
  • May 1st- May 10th: Math SBAC
  • May 11th- May 20th: ELA SBAC
  • May 20th- May 28th: Math STAR
  • May 29th- June 5th: ELA STAR
  • The 8th graders are also taking the History SBAC this year. English classes are also supposed to be reading a novel during this time. There is no down time. EVER.

Kids need to have play incorporated into their daily lives.

Part of the Play Penalty: Our School Does Not Have Recess

If we really want kids to test well, we need to give their minds a break.

Let me repeat, no recess. Instead, students have 5 minutes between passing periods to meet with friends and enjoy down time. It creates a situation where students MUST go to the bathroom during class. Students linger in the hallways, and students are habitually late to class.

Students Have No Down Time

I use multimedia, play games, and try to have students moving around, but many teachers stand at the podium and lecture. The reality is, if I am not teaching bell-to-bell at all times we get in trouble, too. There is a play penalty for everyone at the school.

It is not because they are bad teachers but because there is so much pressure to make sure our underperforming schools perform better that teachers fall back on what they learned in school.

Let Them Relax and They Will Perform

It almost seems counterintuitive to allow kids to relax if you want them to perform better, but allowing kids time to relax and play together creates a community. The bond between students and teachers is invaluable for things like testing. This play penalty helps no one. We need to ensure our kids are ok.

When we have time to build community and relationships with students, they will repay us with their loyalty and test well for us. Middle school students do not understand how testing benefits them, so they try for their adults. School should not only be about performance.

Schools should be able to teach students necessary skills while also allowing them time to develop socially.

A Negative Loop

Our lowest performing schools are in a dangerous negative loop. Schools are underperforming and being given more work, then performing worse and given more.

Students are tired of having work thrown at them, and rebel more frequently. There are at least 30 students going to the bathroom each period because they need to walk around.


We have to take care of our kids or they will get worse.

We need to stop and reset. The over-testing, lack of breaks, and forced stints of prolonged concentration, are not helping students in these underserved communities.

Let kids play.

Let them enjoy their childhood a little longer, and I know they will be better for it. We will all be better for it.

Valerie de la Rosa


I am an educator with almost 15 years of experience teaching in Japan, Hawaii, and in Los Angeles. My goal is to change education and the way we view literacy instruction in America.

9 thoughts on “What Is The Play Penalty? What Can We Do About It?

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    3 September 2023 at 22:05

    […] The socio-economic status of students also influences test scores. A study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that in 2019, students from low-income families scored an average of 20 to 25 points lower on standardized tests than their more affluent peers. […]

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    […] are various reasons why students bully their teachers. Sometimes they are burnt out. Sometimes students want attention. Sometimes they want to impress their […]

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  • 10 Reasons Why PBL with English and History Make the Best Combination - The Weary Educator
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    […] than others but I guarantee students always benefit when teachers work together. I work in a high-needs area, and some of my students only know their teachers as role models (outside of social media!). They […]

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