Policy makers, educators, and parents often talk about the role of schools in promoting the development of the whole child (e.g., physical, social, and academic development). A growing trend toward putting more emphasis on academic subjects and less on recess time, has put this important part of a child’s school day at risk.
When recess is provided, children get a necessary break from the academic challenges in the classroom. However, recess serves as much more than a break. Safe, well-supervised recess offers cognitive (intellectual activity such as thinking, reasoning, or remembering), social, emotional, and physical benefits, which does not seem fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish or remove recess.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as therefore, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines recess as “regularly scheduled periods within the elementary school day for unstructured physical activity and play.” A review of the literature indicates just how beneficial recess is for a child’s cognitive, emotional, physical, and social well-being. However, recent surveys and studies demonstrate that schools sometimes reduce recess to make more room for academics or take it away for punitive or behavioral reasons. Additionally, the period of time given for recess decreases as children get older and children of lower socioeconomic status or those in urban settings tend to have less recess time.
Recess offers its own, unique benefits, apart from the benefits of physical education or physical fitness. Recess provides a much needed, planned break from academics. It allows students to have time to rest, play, imagine, think, socialize, and move. After recess, students are more attentive and better able to perform. In addition, recess gives children the opportunity to practice and develop social skills, in a way that can’t be provided in the structured classroom environment.
Cognitive/Academic Benefits of Recess
Children learn naturally through interactive, manipulative experiences, which are found during play in an unstructured social environment like recess. To be most ready to learn, a child needs a period of interruption after a period of concentrated instruction. Unstructured breaks are found to be more beneficial than simply shifting from one cognitive task to another.
Research demonstrates that recess, whether provided indoors or outdoors, leads to children being more attentive and productive in the classroom. This finding was true even in cases where the students spent much of their recess time socializing. In fact, a student’s ability to refocus during class time was shown to be stimulated more by the break from class, than by the mode of activity that occurred during that break. In other words, any type of activity at recess benefited cognitive performance afterward. Although specified time allotted for recess decreases with age, the benefits of periodic breaks in the academic day applies equally to adolescents and younger children.
Social and Emotional Benefits
Recess promotes natural social-emotional learning and development for children by giving them a time to interact with peers, allowing them to practice and role play important social skills. Allowing socialization, under adult supervision, adds to the learning environment, stretching it outside of the classroom.
While playing at recess, children learn useful communication skills, such as negotiation, cooperation, sharing, and problem solving. They also learn coping skills, such as determination and self-control. These skills are necessary and can last a lifetime. Recess also offers children a necessary, socially structured means for managing stress by allowing for needed breaks, fun games, exercise, and time with friends.
There is a vast amount of literature available on the need for and benefits of physical activity and fitness, for a child’s physical well-being and academic and social maturity. Not all children play vigorously during recess; however, recess does provide children the opportunity to be active in the mode of their choice and to practice movement and motor skills (e.g., running, climbing, jumping). Even a little movement during recess brings children closer to the recommended “60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day”, a standard supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which can help lower the risk of obesity.
Safety and Supervision
Parents, teachers, and administrators have expressed concern for children’s’ safety during recess. Some schools have chosen to disallow games or activities deemed unsafe, and in some cases, to discontinue recess entirely because of the many issues connected with child safety. Although schools should ban games and activities that are a threat to child safety, they should not discontinue recess altogether. There are steps schools can take to address safety concerns and protect children, while still allowing play during recess. Compliance with the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Playground Safety Handbook will help to ensure proper maintenance of playground equipment that meets the following federal guidelines:
1. Provision of adequate safe spaces and facilities.
2. Maintenance of developmentally appropriate equipment with regular inspections.
3. Establishment and enforcement of safety rules.
4. Implementation of recess curriculum in physical education classes to teach games, rules, and conflict resolution.
5. Establishment of a school-wide, clear policy to prevent bullying or aggressive behavior.
6. Provision of adequate supervision by qualified adults who can intervene in the event a child’s physical or emotional safety is in jeopardy.
“Some playgrounds in areas with a high risk of violence may require additional protective measures to ensure the safety of children.”
What is Structured Recess?
Structured recess incorporates structured play, in which games and activities are taught and led by school staff. Those in favor of structured recess state that children often need help or suggestions to develop games, and benefit from encouragement to participate in physical activities. Policy makers and funding organizations have recently called for more opportunities for daily activity as a way to address childhood obesity. This has strengthened the argument to maintain or reinstate recess as an essential part of the school day.
Although some advocate for structured recess because it can increase physical activity for children and in turn help combat obesity, others are concerned that structured recess will take away from the idea of unstructured recess, which gives the child a break to make personal choices about what kinds of activities to engage in (e.g., talking, moving, imagining). However, there are many benefits of structured recess to consider as well, including:
- Children may benefit from game instruction and encouragement to feel more connected to the classroom environment.
- Children can be coached to develop interpersonal skills, which they can then use for conflict resolution.
- Children of different academic skill levels can actively participate in the same activity.
- Teachers have reported improved behavior and attention in the classroom after vigorous activities during structured recess.
Structured recess requires that school staff receive appropriate training so that they are able to address and encourage the diverse needs of all students, and facilitate social relationships among children by encouraging inclusiveness in games. Structured recess should not replace physical education. Physical education is important for students’ instruction in and acquisition of new motor skills, exploration of sports, and the notion of lifelong physical fitness.
There are methods for encouraging a physically active recess, without necessarily adding structured, adult-led games. For instance, schools can offer attractive, safe playground equipment to stimulate free play; establish games/boundaries painted on the playground; or instruct children in games (e.g., four square or hopscotch).
“These types of activities can range from fully structured (with the adult directing and requiring participation) to partly unstructured (with adults providing supervision and initial instruction) to fully unstructured (supervision and social guidance).”
In structured, partly structured, or unstructured environments, activity levels vary based on school policy, equipment provided, encouragement, age group, etc. Therefore, the potential benefits of requiring participation in structured recess must be weighed against the potential for limiting the development of social and emotional skills. Whatever style of recess is chosen, it should be viewed as a supplement to physical education class.
Duration and Timing of Recess
In the United States, the duration and timing of recess periods can vary by age, grade, building and/or school district. Many elementary schools offer recess right after students eat lunch. Studies show that when recess is given before lunch, students spend more time eating; and less food is wasted. This is why some schools have adapted a recess before lunch policy. Additionally, when recess is offered before lunch, teachers and researchers have found an improvement in student behavior at meal time, and in the classroom in the afternoon.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Department of Agriculture support the idea of having recess before lunch as part of a school’s wellness policy.”
Although peer-reviewed research has examined the timing and type of activity during recess and recorded the many benefits of recess for children, an optimal duration has not been identified. However, there is agreement about the need for regularly scheduled recess based on national guidelines. In schools, the length specified for recess time ranges from 20 to 60 minutes a day.
In some countries, such as Japan, grade school children have a 10- to 15-minute break every hour, due to fact that attention spans begin to diminish after 40 to 50 minutes of intense instruction. Therefore, to maximize performance, recess should be scheduled at regular intervals, providing children adequate time to regain their focus before instruction continues.
Even with plenty of evidence regarding the benefits of recess, significant pressures related to standardized testing mandated by educational reforms, have led some to think that recess and physical education would be better spent on academics. Time previously dedicated to physical education and recess, is being reallocated for additional academic instruction.
Ironically, reducing recess time may be counterproductive to academic achievement, as a growing body of evidence suggests that recess promotes physical health, social development, and cognitive performance. While recess and physical education both encourage activity and a healthy lifestyle, it is only supervised, unstructured recess that offers children the opportunity to play creatively.
“Pediatricians’ support of recess is an extension of the AAP’s policy statement supporting free play as a fundamental component of a child’s normal growth and development.”
Based on an abundance of scientific studies, withholding recess for punitive or academic reasons would seem to counteract the intended outcome of improving academic performance, and may take away from children’s development of important life skills.
“The main reason that I hate recess being taken away is the underlying message it sends, which I think is: ‘Look, we know that the rest of your school day is craptastic, and the one escape time that you have to relax is recess, so we’re going to take that from you.’ It inherently tells kids that ‘recess is the most desirable part of the school day.’ Why not send the message that all learning is fun? It also sends the message that play/recess has no value, and therefore, it doesn’t matter if we take it from you. No harm, no foul. That couldn’t be further from the truth!”
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Reference: The Crucial Role of Recess in School
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Rachel Wise is a certified school psychologist and licensed behavior specialist with a Master’s Degree in Education. She is also the head author and CEO at educationandbehavior.com, a site for parents, educators, and counselors to find effective, research-based strategies that work for children. Rachel has been working with individuals with academic and behavioral needs for over 20 years and has a passion for making a positive difference in the lives of children and the adults who support them.