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The Importance of Recess and Play

Jade D’Agostino

Kayla Illingworth


The importance of recess has gradually eroded as our emphasis on academic accountability has increased; however, the role of physical activity in the elementary school setting has documented positive contributions such as increased attention span, higher productivity, and better overall health.  When a child is asked what their favorite subject in school is, the answer is often, recess.  Play is essential to the development of children because it contributes to their cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being.


The Role of Play


Do elementary students need recess? The answer is yes.  The role of play in a school setting is a significantly important in a child’s education and well being. How many times a day should students get recess?  The ideal school would incorporate two daily breaks of 15 minutes each; with a lunch break of 20 minutes for play. This would allow ample time for students to use the restroom, be physically active and take a brain break. A well-equipped playground should include play courts, covered or shaded play space, age-specific play areas with appropriate ground cover and landscape that features hills or valleys. Some equipment should include playground balls of various sizes and feelings, parachutes, rhythmic equipment, landing mats, balance boards, connecting ladders, swings and slides.


Should directed activities be offered during recess? The potential to organize directed activities during recess is a definite possibility at most school sites. Some options might include giving students access to equipment they may not be familiar with, such as tennis balls, Frisbees, hula-hoops, jump ropes or bean bags. Incorporating these items will give students a choice of several specific activities.  This will also open their minds to activities other than running, playing tag, or sitting on a bench.


Should students have any safety-based restrictions during recess?  Generally schools have a Playground Behavior Policy which clearly states the rules for all. Students in a 21st Century School will have the time and opportunity to explore their outdoor surroundings with restrictions only limited by safety precautions.. Play is about exploration and unstructured fun. Research by Meyler, an elementary physical education teacher, suggests that recess can be viewed as an opportunity for students to not only engage in physical activity, but also to learn about and build their character, develop cooperation skills and practice social interactions. In addition, play can help students manage stress and become resilient. Meyler offers that educators cannot overlook the importance of promoting physical education during the entire school day and claims that a sound elementary physical education program can strongly promote students to be active and healthy throughout their lifetime. (Meyler, 2009). Everyone needs a chance to get the wiggles out, use an outside voice, and refresh.





How Important Is Recess?


Dictionary dot com defines recess as “temporary withdrawal or cessation from the usual work or activity. In the new and improved 21st Century school, recess will be a necessary and essential component of the day. Recess is not only imperative to children’s achievement academically, but research supports students achieve healthy habits and helps them to develop socially. Rae Pica, a children’s physical activity specialist, gives several reasons why kids need recess. One of these reasons includes the idea that everyone benefits from a break! “Both children and adults learn better and more quickly when their efforts are distributed (breaks are included) than when concentrated (work is conducted in longer periods)” (Pica). Who wouldn’t agree that it is often nice to have a break from the routines of the day?  Unfortunately, many districts, superintendents, principals, and teachers do not find value in recess. Teachers are under increasing pressure to find more time in the academic day to increase student learning.   Students, teachers, and a districts’ success is being measured in terms of student learning in reading and mathematics, and this has unfortunately persuaded many schools to discontinue recess and reduce instruction in the arts.


Although recess isn’t considered to be a priority in many schools today, the ideal 21st Century school should make it a priority. “Vigorous exercise can enhance mental alertness and school performance, as well as improve health and reduce the incidence of obesity” (Parker-Pope, 2008). If recess is meant to increase the amount of learning that will take place in the day, why toss it out as if it has no connection to the academics that take place? “For people of all ages and in all fields, breaks are considered essential for satisfaction and alertness” (Jarrett).  In most professions, adults expect and are expected to take a 10-15 minute break from their daily routines. If adults need breaks, what makes us think that children do not need breaks from their daily routines? Recess breaks are vital to a child’s day to improve not only their health, but the state of their learning as well. A pediatrics study conducted by lead researcher Dr. Romina M. Barros, published in February of 2009, looked for the correlation between recess and classroom behavior of 11,000 children between the ages of 8-9.  “Those who had more than 15 minutes of recess a day showed better behavior in class than those who had little or none” (Parker-Pope 2009). Not only is recess important for a child’s academic performance, but it helps with behavior as well.


Academic achievement and attentiveness are improved when children have the opportunity to participate in free-play at recess.  An experimental study done by Olga Jarrett “found that fourth-graders were more on-task and less fidgety in the classroom on days when they had had recess, with hyperactive children among those who benefited the most” (Jarrett, 2003).  Time saved by students who are on-task will save academic time in the day.   Recess simply cannot be left out of the academic day and will in fact increase the concentration of the students thus allowing for more successful learning time.


Physical Education and Activity


Schools are responsible for teaching students how to be physically active as well as teaching the core subjects. However, children are getting less and less unstructured play time, a trend exacerbated by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. As a result of the NCLB, many schools responded by reducing the time for recess, the creative arts, and physical education in an effort to focus on reading and mathematics. The 21st Century School system would be more conscious of the fact that both physical education and core subjects are equally important; education is broader than just math and language arts.  Timothy Meyler offers that educators cannot overlook the importance of promoting physical education during the entire school day and claims that a sound elementary physical education program can strongly promote students to be active and healthy throughout their lifetime (Meyler, 2009).  Physical activity can reduce the risk of various diseases, improve test scores, and build self-esteem in children.  It seems as if the two go hand in hand, children need to be physically active in order to make the most out of learning; you can’t have one without the other.


Recess and Health


Recess breaks are not only healthy for students’ ability to concentrate and learn, but recess and some form of physical education during the day (whether structured or unstructured) is healthy for the students’ overall health. With the rising rates of obesity in children and adults alike, it is peculiar that we as educators would eliminate recess and physical play from the school day.   According to Sizing Up: The Obesity Crisis by Cindy Long, many public schools are working to promote healthier habits.  Perry County Central High School in Hazard, Kentucky is working to change their identification as “least physically active region in the state” (Long 2010).   Students are motivating each other to get in shape.  “First they started a physical activity club they named ‘Walk It Out,’ where students use breaks within their class schedule to walk laps outside around the school or inside the gym” (Long 2010).   Teachers are encouraged to also model good health through exercising and participating in physical exercise at school.


With newer advances in electronics and technology geared towards kids and teenagers, it is no wonder their intriguing appeal takes over in the battle between playing outside and staying indoors to beat that next level of the game. Most student time spent doing physical activity relies solely on their time spent at school.  “It is not okay that the amount of physical activity drops precipitously from three hours per day for the average nine-year-old to only 49 minutes on weekdays and half an hour on the weekends by the time students reach 15” (Parker-Pope 2008).  Unfortunately it is now partially up to educators to make time for and model physical activity.  “If children do not have the opportunity to be active during the school day, they do not tend to compensate after school. Jarrett found that children were less active after school on days when they had no recess and PE classes in school” (Jarrett).  The ideal 21st Century school will include time during the day for teachers to allow for physical activity in order to promote positive health in children.


“Inactivity,” according to research cited in Waite-Stupiansky and Findlay (2001), “is associated with the tripling of childhood obesity since 1970, accompanied by increases in health problems such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol” (Jarrett, 2003).  Unstructured physical play has also been linked to reducing stress in children according to Pica.  “The National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends unstructured physical play as a developmentally appropriate means of reducing stress in children’s lives – and studies show that stress has a negative impact on learning as well as on health” (Pica, year).  The same studies as mentioned above have been done for adults in looking at exercise and its impact on reducing our daily amount of stress. Lastly, Pica points out that physical activity is food for the brain.  “Thanks to advances in brain research, we now know that most of the brain is activated during physical activity – much more so than when we are doing seatwork” (Pica).  Sitting for long periods of time is also not seen as a healthy thing to do, either. Researchers tracked 53,000 men and 70,000 women and “the researchers found that women who sit more than 6 hours a day were 37 percent more likely to die [earlier] than those who sit less than 3 hours; for men, long-sitters were 17 percent more likely to die [earlier]” (Cevallos, 2010).  If it is unhealthy for adults to sit for that many hours with few breaks, the same would stand for children who sit in their seats for six hours a day with a lunch break.  It is simply not healthy for anyone to sit for long periods of time without a break.  Recess at school is a crucial part of the academic day and should not be discarded like last year’s curriculum. 


The Correlation between Recess and Socialization


For some, recess is the only time in the day when students are really able to socialize with other children.  Throughout the day, most students are told to stay quiet the entire time they are indoors, lining up, or eating lunch.  Any discussion they have is teacher-directed, if any discussion is being allowed at all.  “Recess may be the only opportunity for some children to engage in social interactions with other children” (Jarrett, 2003).  Students need to have unorganized play in which they are free to explore creating rules and organize teams.  They are able to practice negotiating with each other and natural leaders have a chance to practice participating in leadership roles.  Children are also in need of being in a situation where they are able to “come and go” as necessary (within reason), and should learn to deal with issues they may have with their peers.  “Recess provides a more ‘open setting’ where children are free to leave the play situation.  In open settings, child must learn to resolve conflicts to keep the game going, resulting in low levels of aggression on the playground” (Jarrett, 2003).  Recess is also a great time for teachers and other school staff members to observe the students’ behavior and how they interact and socialize with others.  “Seeing how their students interact socially can help teachers and other playground supervisors intervene in situations involving aggression or social isolation” (Jarrett, 2003).  Recess is a time where children are able to have meaningful social experiences and this time should not be cut or left out all together.  Recess is one of the many ways children can develop cognitively.


Sports at the Elementary Level


Sport education in the upper elementary grades can be used effectively to teach sport participation competencies within naturalistic contexts that are modified to ensure full student participation in developmentally appropriate activities (Bell, 1998).   Sports education provides insight into the social skills of leadership and team membership as students assume roles such as captains, coaches, officials, scorekeepers, and managers.  While children are in elementary school it is important that they experience a variety of sports and types of physical activity.  For example, students might participate in soccer, track and field, hockey, basketball, gymnastics, tennis and many others. A few issues need to be addressed when planning to include sports in the educational day--team decisions, competition formats, and awards.   Included with these would be the decision on when to include sports during the school day.  Some options would be before school, during recess/lunch and at a scheduled time block of the day.  This would allow students who don’t have the opportunity to participate in after school sports because of time conflicts and other financial obligations to get involved in sports activities. The 21st Century school would integrate recreational sports into the school day in order to provide all students with the option to experience and participate in sports related activity. Offering sports at the elementary level would equal the playing field and encourage students to learn good sportsmanship, social skills and develop leadership qualities. Lastly, the 21st Century school would also have a quarterly Sports Festival or Sports Day to show support for the physical activity students are taking part in.




The 21st Century School will have a strong vision to enhance the whole child and develop their individual talents.  Kyanna Sutton in Family Education states that kids of all ages can learn a lot about their connection to the natural world by exploring what’s around them. They begin to develop investigative skills which will help them later when they have to grasp many different science and math concepts. Recess and play time provided in the various ways mentioned in this chapter will greatly benefit the child and the school.  Play is essential to the development of children and youth because it contributes to their cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being. It is in the best interest of the student to provide and integrate recess as a more prominent piece of the educational day.  A child’s right to play must be defended by all adults, especially educators and parents; the time has come to advocate strongly in support of play for all children (Isenberg, 2002). Every child deserves the opportunity to develop their unique potential.




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