In a recent policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) extolled the virtues of recess as an invaluable part of the school day. With pressure on schools and teachers to produce children who excel scholastically (or who, at the very least, can pass standardized tests), the focus in the classroom is increasingly an academic one. Unstructured play time, whether in the classroom or outdoors, is becoming increasingly rare just as studies increasingly demonstrate its importance.
Reduced recess time does children a disservice, explains the AAP, and not simply because increased physical activity is associated with healthier body weight. In fact, it appears that recess is more than just an opportunity to get some exercise, and while a structured physical education class is an important part of the academic curriculum, it’s not a substitute for unstructured play time. An article by Ramstetter et al reviewed a host of studies on the benefits of recess, concluding that periods of unstructured play throughout the school day provide benefits for mental, emotional, physical, and social development. Further, a variety of studies have demonstrated that children benefit from regular breaks from academics, and recesses throughout the day allow children to focus better once they return to the classroom (see, for instance, Ginsberg et al. Jarrett et al, Stellino et al).
It appears that it’s not just young children who benefit from regular recess; adolescents also demonstrate increased performance, enhanced concentration, and better behavior when they’re allowed a break between mental tasks. Unfortunately, though, unstructured recess time in schools dwindles as a child ages, with most or all of a middle- or high school student’s day devoted to academic tasks.
With regard to the timing of recess, typical elementary schools offer play time after lunch. Studies suggest, however, that offering children an opportunity to play before they eat increases the time and attention they pay to their food, improves nutritional intake and mealtime behavior, and improves classroom behavior after lunch (see, for instance, Bergman et al, Gettinger et al).
On the basis of their review of the evidence, the AAP Policy Statement recommendations include the following:
- Recess is an important part of the school day, and institutions should not withhold recess to punish poor achievement or misbehavior. Neither should academics be allowed to replace recess in the school day (as this is counterproductive).
- Because it allows for mental decompression and de-stressing, recess is equally important to younger children and adolescents.
- While physical education is a valuable part of the school day, it should not be considered a substitute for recess. The former is academic in nature and can teach healthy habits, but only the latter allows for unstructured play and the fostering of creativity and social skills.
- Children given the opportunity to engage in active, unstructured recess are more likely to meet the (AAP’s) recommended 60 minutes of physical activity each day; this helps to combat obesity.
- Schools should strive to provide a safe, supervised recess environment. The AAP recommends that schools ban unsafe games or activities, but strongly recommends against banning or restricting recess on the grounds that children might engage in dangerous activities.
AAP Council on School Health. The crucial role of recess in school. Pediatrics. 2013 Jan;131(1):183-8.
Bergman EA, Buergel NS, Englund A, Femrite T. Relationships of meal and recess schedules to plate waste in elementary schools; University of Mississippi, National Food Service Management Institute. 2003.
Gettinger et al. Food waste is reduced when elementary-school children have recess before lunch. J Am Diet Assoc. 1996;96(9): 906–908
Ginsberg et al. The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics. 2007 Jan;119(1):182-91.
Jarrett et al. Impact of recess on classroom behavior: group effects and individual differences. J Educ Res. 1998;92(2): 121–126.
Stellino et al. Intrinsically motivated, free-time physical activity: considerations for recess. J Phys Educ, Recreat Dance. 2008;79(4):37–40.