When I was a child, I would spend a large majority of my time playing outside with neighborhood kids. Due to various changes in lifestyles and living situations, children typically do not have the same opportunities for unstructured play as their parents experienced while growing up. For many kids, recess is the only opportunity they have for unstructured outdoor play. Sometimes, recess or P.E. may be their only opportunity for movement at all.
Children often say that recess is their favorite part of a school day. As adults we may think this is a sign that they are trying to get out of learning. However, if we take a closer look at the inherent benefits of recess, children instinctively know what is good for them. Children learn a tremendous amount through play whether it be the social skills they develop or the benefits that play and movement has for the brain’s capacity to learn and be attentive.
Unfortunately, children nowadays may be spending less and less time at play. Not only are children playing outside less in general but in some schools physical fitness has been significantly reduced, occurring only a couple times a week or only part of the school year. Also, children may lose recess when they misbehave in the classroom.
So what opportunities are children missing when recess is taken away?
- Physical fitness: Without recess, the opportunity for children to get moving is significantly reduced. According to, Why Kids Need Recess, by Rae Pica, physical activity increases oxygen and blood supply to the brain. This increases brain function not only in terms of academic performance but also in terms of a child’s ability to maintain attention. She also references work by Eric Jensen that suggests being seated for longer than 10 minutes reduces concentration and can lead to fatigue.
- Better attention: Imagine a training or class that you have sat through in the past. How long does it take before you start to feel tired and/or your mind starts wandering to other things—other topics? Now, consider a training where movement was an integral part of the process. Not only was the training that included movement more engaging but I suspect you were more alert and able to maintain focus on the topic at hand. Why would we expect anything less for young children?
- Social Skills: Recess time allows children an opportunity to practice their social skills with less direct supervision than what they experience in the classroom. They get to “try things on for size” and navigate the world of negotiation and problem solving on their own. In fact, the recess experience can be a great indicator of which social skills students could use more support in learning.
- Creativity: Much of a child’s school day is structured. Students follow teacher-directed activities and often are required to remain seated for long periods of the day. Recess not only allows an opportunity for creative movement but for creative play as well. Children can choose how they want to spend their recess time and who they want to spend it with. This unstructured play time is important for developing decision making and problem solving skills.
- Needed Breaks: Sometimes we can fall into the trap of thinking, “If I work a little harder and a little longer, I can get more accomplished.” The truth is–we all need a break. We all need opportunities to destress and to have moments where nothing is expected of us. Allowing breaks throughout the day increases performance rather than detracting from it. Research by Terrence Dwyer (referenced by ASCD) found that when a group received a significant amount of exercise per week and so less instructional time, as compared to peers, academic performance maintained and the group showed improved social skills as well.
Whether you are considering recess from a physical standpoint or a social standpoint, it is clear to see the value recess plays in education and early childhood development. There is a ton of research available that discusses the importance of movement and play in a child’s development and learning. Sometimes we get so busy that it seems like “play” may not be the best use of time. Or taking away recess may seem like the only available option when a child is misbehaving. We’ll have some more on alternatives to taking away recess, compiled by my colleagues Emily Peterson and Alice Viles tomorrow. To find out more about the importance of play and the factors that have changed childhood experiences, you can read, The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds, by Kenneth R. Ginsburg. In the meantime, GO PLAY!!!
Image: © Mathew Hayward | Dreamstime.com