The Importance of Recess

I recently had the opportunity to participate in an interview with a magazine reporter writing about the importance of recess for children.

While recess may not seem like a big deal to some people, I believe it is a critically important issue to examine in the context of supporting the cognitive, emotional, physical, and social development of children.  Here are the questions the reporter asked me followed by my responses.

As an educator and clinician, how would you describe the importance of play for children and adults? Is it a “nice to have” part of our lives or a “need to have” part of our lives?

Play is an essential part of our lives throughout the lifespan.  For children, play is critical for supporting all aspects of development including physical, relational, communication, and cognitive development.  Even as adults we have a need for play in order to maintain optimal physical, cognitive, and emotional health.  Adults who focus mostly on work, without breaks for non-work activities, can suffer from emotional burn-out, physical health problems, and decreased productivity.

Looking at our history, it seems like children’s lives are a lot more structured now than they were when I was a child (1970s and 80s). What are the consequences of that increase in structure? Why do you think we’ve moved in that direction?

In previous generations children had more opportunity and expectation to engage in unstructured play throughout the day.  We went outside and played for hours, rode bikes through the neighborhood, and generally made up our own activities and things to do.  Today children’s lives tend to be more structured in terms of how much activity is adult-directed rather than child-directed.  There now tends to be a focus on scheduling children’s time outside of school in activities such as tutoring, music, sports, play groups, and more.  Less emphasis is placed on allowing children downtime to choose the activities they would like to engage in and to make choices about how they use free time.  It has also become the norm that many children are allowed to use electronic devices as their only unstructured activity, which also poses problems for their social, cognitive, emotional, and physical health.

In schools there is an increasing emphasis on filling every possible moment during the school day with academic content, which has also led to a decrease in the amount of time children have to self-select activities.  This drive to structure more of children’s time stems from a well-intentioned but ill-founded desire to help children get ahead and out-perform their peers.  Parents desire for their children to be ahead academically, socially, and physically.  Educational institutions desire for their students to achieve academic test scores better than students in other schools.  This drive to help children “be better” has led to a focus on structuring as much of their day as possible around formal learning activities, and a reduction in emphasis on free time and self-selected activities.

How does unstructured play affect physical health?

Unstructured play can positively impact many aspects of child health.  There are the obvious physical benefits of strengthening the body, reducing obesity, improving cardiovascular health, etc.  This kind of play also has benefits for brain health, as it can aid in stress reduction by providing a physical outlet for mental and emotional stress.  As adults we may find that going for a walk, working out, playing golf, or some other physical activity helps reduce our overall stress level and improves our ability to manage stress.  Children also need opportunities for physical activity to more effectively cope with stress and challenges.  When these opportunities are not provided the result tends to be increased stress, poor coping skills, and reduced learning.

Does the reduction in recess time lead kids to develop so-called behavior problems? Are some of these children in need of more movement than they can get in a traditional school environment? How can parents help children who are very active and/or kinesthetic learners? Should we be advocating for a change to the way schools do business instead of trying to make kids sit still and pay attention?

Some children have great difficulty sitting and attending to schoolwork for extended periods of time.  These children are more likely to engage in problematic behaviors, as they struggle to sit and attend for long periods.  The vast majority of children do not intend to misbehave, but their attempts to meet their need for movement and activity change are often perceived as “problems” by educators.  They may move in their chair, get up and move about the room, daydream, or engage in other activities that meet their need for movement and stimulation.  Children with sensory processing problems are especially impacted by long periods of sitting in the classroom, as their brains and bodies require specific types of stimulation in order to function well.  When children are exhibiting signs of inattentiveness, moving around more, or other forms of “misbehavior” it is often a red flag for teachers that a break is needed.  Allowing the child to engage in physical movement by taking a walk, stretching, or playing outside can help re-engage the brain for more effective learning.  Too often these children are punished by removing opportunities for physical movement, such as recess, which only compounds the problem and makes things worse for the child.  Parents who are aware that their child requires move physical movement and stimulation should discuss this with the school staff in order to problem solve how best to provide breaks and movement opportunities to meet the child’s needs.

I absolutely believe that we should be looking at changing the ways schools do business when it comes to opportunities for physical movement and unstructured activities!  Our increasing focus on sitting at a desk to do academic work for hours at a time is backfiring, as evidenced by our overall achievement outcomes as compared to other countries.  Finland provides us with an excellent example of this.  They provide much more physical and unstructured playtime throughout the school day because they know it makes a positive difference for student learning and educational outcomes.  It is frustrating that in the United States we have not changed our mode of operation to better align with what the research shows about activities and environments for optimal learning.  Even the American Academy of Pediatrics has a position statement about the importance of recess and playtime for children, yet that advice is generally not followed in schools.

From a learning perspective, how does recess affect performance?  Is playtime simply a “break” for the brain or does it actually help students process all the material they are expected to learn? If you could design the school day, how much recess time would you put on the schedule?

Recess provides numerous benefits for students.  It allows them to take a break and relax for periods of time, which then helps them come back to the classroom refreshed and more ready to learn.  Neuroscience research has also shown us that physical movement is critical for integrating learning.  Allowing children more time for physical activity, as occurs during recess, helps integrate and consolidate the learning they are doing in the classroom.  Recess is valuable not just for physical health, but also for improving social and learning outcomes for students.  Unstructured recess time allows children to learn about cooperation, negotiation, turn taking, sharing, and a host of other important social and relational skills.

If I were to design the school day I would provide 10-15 minutes of recess for every 45 minutes of academic instruction.  Recess can vary in format, and can include time spent indoors and outdoors.  However, we all learn and focus best when we have a break after about 45 minutes of structured focused work.  At a minimum, students in elementary school should be given 3 periods of recess during the day – once in the morning, once in the middle of the day, and once in the afternoon.  Secondary students should also be given activity breaks throughout the day to ensure optimal learning.  If we want to optimize student learning and development then we need to rethink a school day structure that provides limited opportunities for breaks and movement.

Resources for more information on this topic:

Article about how Finland approaches recess and unstructured activities for students:

Article by a researcher whose expertise is on recess and child development/learning:

American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on the crucial role of recess in school:

What You Should Do Next:

Sign up for my Better Behavior Naturally community newsletter

Sign up for my newsletter to get tips, resources, and supports to improve your child’s attention, anxiety, mood, and behavior…while making your job as a parent easier.

Enroll in one of my workshops

Check out one of my many workshops where you’ll join my exclusive community of parents in a one-of-a-kind virtual resource accessible 24/7. Whether you’ve got a child with a diagnosis like autism or ADHD, or are becoming more and more frustrated with a child who struggles to listen and cope, these workshops are designed to give you the information, tools, and support you need…whenever you need it.

Related Posts

School Consult

School Consultation Highlights: What is Going Right

I’ll be honest. I was not looking forward to the 3-hour school consultation on my schedule for one morning recently. ...
Read Post
Contagious Stress

Contagious Stress

Stress is no stranger to parents of children with special needs; but did you know that new research shows stress ...
Read Post
Autism Spectrum Disorder More Than Genes

Research Review: Autism Spectrum Disorder – More Than Just Genes

An important study released this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that environmental factors play a ...
Read Post