Students running as part of S.M.A.R.T. goals.

Why Children Need Recess


“Never kid a kid who hasn’t had his recess.” – T.J. Detweiler, Recess cartoon

Do students really need recess, or is it better to give them more class time? It’s a question educators, parents, and school boards discuss frequently.

With all the standards and testing requirements students need to meet, some feel it would be best to shorten or eliminate recess. Longer classes mean children have more time to learn and practice necessary skills. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

However, experts at The American Academy of Pediatrics say recess is essential to children’s health and development. The cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that come from playtime can actually help students do better in school.

Topics in this article:

The Importance of Physical Activity
How to Resolve Behavioral Problems
How Long Should Recess Be?
Impact on Overall Health

 The Importance of Physical Activity

Recess plays a huge role in children’s physical health. Researchers Kimberly A. Clevenger and Karin A. Pfeiffer found in their 2020 study that recess time can contribute up to 70% of a child’s weekday physical activity. This may be because 76% of children ages 6 to 17 don’t get enough exercise, according to a 2017 CDC study. Since the US health department recommends children ages 6-17 get an hour or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily, it is up to schools to provide children with sufficient recess time to increase their physical activity.

It is actually in school leaders’ best interests to give children time to exercise. Dr. Scott McGinnis, an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School, says parts of the brain that control memory and thinking are larger in people who exercise regularly.

“Even more exciting is the finding that engaging in a program of regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions,” McGinnis stated.

A 2014 study published in Brain and Cognition said physical activity can boost children’s ELA skills.

“More aerobically fit children … scored higher on academic tests of reading and spelling, which measured their ability to correctly pronounce and spell progressively more difficult words,” the researchers explained in the study.

With more brainpower, elementary students can learn faster and retain information better.

Regular physical activity can also help reduce children’s anxiety, depression, and stress levels, according to Harvard Health Publishing. The better students feel, the more likely they are to pay attention and behave well in class.

How to Resolve Behavioral Problems

School leaders may consider shortening or eliminating recess because of the behavior problems that often occur during that time. Principals reported in a 2010 Gallup survey that a majority of behavior issues (89%) happen during recess.

Sociologist Rebecca London said in a Harvard EdCast episode that teachers often say students come back from recess upset or unable to focus because of something that happened during recess. One way schools can prevent bullying and other negative experiences is by having organized recess.

“Organized recess is an opportunity for there to be a lot of free choice, different kinds of games available, but organized in a way so that everybody has a chance to play, everybody can be included, and everyone has a chance to have fun,” London said.

There are two parts to organized recess, London explained. The first is having teachers set up a variety of games and activities for students to freely join in or opt-out of at their discretion. The second is having teachers participate in playtime.

“Not all adults who are out there monitoring recess want to throw on their tennis shoes and run around and play basketball with kids,” London acknowledged. “But they could help kids to resolve conflicts when they arise as they do when children play. There’s always going to be a conflict, is the ball in, is the ball out? Help them to resolve those conflicts. They can be a positive supporter of play. They can cheer for kids, they can remind them to play fair, they can remind them to pass the ball, they can do inactive ways of supporting play, like turning a jump rope. I’ve seen a lot of adults standing on play yards, turning jump ropes and getting to know the kids that way.”

Another way to combat the behavioral issues that might arise during recess is to incorporate a SEL program into your curriculum to teach students good playground behavior. Studies Weekly Well-Being includes lessons on good communication skills (week 12), how to handle conflict (week 11), and show respect (week 31), which can help prevent bullying and playground fights.

How Long Should Recess Be?

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC recommend at least 20 minutes of recess a day. However, one in five principals in the 2010 Gallup survey said they decreased recess time due to annual yearly progress testing requirements. Only half of the principals said their elementary school students receive 16-30 minutes of recess per day.

Angela Hanscom argues in a 2016 Edutopia article that children need at least an hour of free play. Having a long recess period gives students time to engage in creative play, practice life skills, and regulate physical activity.

And PE doesn’t count. The CDC says PE does not have the same benefits because the playtime is structured. During recess, students get to make their own decisions, which helps them learn how to solve problems and bounce back from mistakes or disappointments.

Hanscom points out that teachers often complain about how hard it is to get children to focus on class after recess.

“Some teachers confess to using special techniques to calm and re-focus the children, such as dimming the lights or playing soothing music as they reenter the classroom,” Hanscom said. “While these are great coping strategies to help manage the chaos, preventing episodes of amplified activity from occurring in the first place may prove to be the most beneficial.”

Catherine L. Ramstetter, told Healthline that when children don’t get the recess time they need, “they’re more prone to falling off-task, becoming fidgety, daydreaming, producing loud outbursts, and struggling with boredom, fatigue, and physical discomfort.”

Schools that take away recess time as a punishment don’t fare well, either. Children who have an academic break actually behave better in class than children who don’t, a study from the Journal of Educational Research found. So, if schools want children to improve their behavior, they are better off giving children time to destress and learn life skills through free play.

Impact on Overall Health

A quality recess experience can improve children’s overall health, William Massey said in his 2021 Journal of School Health study.

“Not all recess is created equal,” Massey said. “I’ve been on playgrounds where the kids go outside, and it’s a parking lot with high fences, no play structure, no balls, no jump-ropes, no chalk — they’re literally outside, and there’s nothing to do.”

A quality recess experience means children have plenty of games to choose from, and they know how to play them. When children spend their recess playing and not arguing over game rules, then playtime increases their overall health.

Recess offers students the perfect opportunity to practice life skills, Hanscom said. While educators can teach conflict resolution and self-management in class, Hanscom said children learn best in real-life scenarios. When engaged in free play, children quickly learn to share and work together.

In short…

Children need recess, and schools benefit from giving it to them.

Give PK-6 students SEL skills to practice during recess using Studies Weekly Well-Being.

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