With kids returning to school soon (if they haven’t already), I thought it would be a good time to discuss the importance of recess in relation to children’s behavior and academic achievement. If you are like me, you remember fondly time spent on the playground during recess at school. We had at least one, if not two, lengthy recess times. This was a time when friendships were forged, games played, knees skinned, and occasionally fights fought. Today, with the pressures of high-stakes testing, many schools have limited recess to 20 minutes or less, if not completely eliminated it.
Research is beginning to show that this limiting of recess time may be detrimental to children academic achievement as well as their classroom behavior. A 2009 study published in the journal Pediatrics studied just this issue. It examined third-graders across the country that had either (1) none or less than 15 minutes of recess per day or (2) more than 15 minutes of recess per day. Children for whom recess was a part of their school day (for at least 15 minutes) scored better on ratings of classroom behavior compared to students with no or limited recess time.
These findings shouldn’t be surprising considering what we know about the role of unstructured play in a child’s development. Play is more than just free time. It serves as a testing ground for kids to learn social skills, self-regulation, and conflict resolution. It’s easy to see how these skills would translate well to classroom behavior as well.
It is somewhat ironic that this decline in recess time comes alongside an increase in the number of structured activities and sports in which many children are involved. While these activities can teach valuable lessons, they cannot replace true free play time, in which adults do not set the rules or the agenda. Unstructured play is another piece of the puzzle for helping kids to learn to interact well with others.
Contrary to what you might think, most educators see the value of recess time. A recent Gallup poll of nearly 2,000 elementary school principals showed that the vast majority (96%) believe recess has a positive impact on social development. Similarly, two-thirds of these principals said that students were more focused in class after recess. Despite their belief in the positive benefits of recess, some principals still feel pressured to limit it due to high-stakes testing requirements. In the survey, 20% of principals reported cutting recess times in order to meet testing requirements.
As we all know, educators face many challenges today. These reports indicate that while educators value recess, they often feel pressured to limit it as testing requirements increase. Sadly, recess time is one of the aspects of the school day that might help students focus better in class, but in a time-pressure environment, sometimes it must seem like the easiest item to cut. As parents, we are somewhat limited in how much impact we can have on these school decisions. If you see the value of recess time at your child’s school, try to be an advocate for it in any way you can. There might be a need for parent volunteers to help monitor during recess or help in other ways to free up more time for teachers. As the research shows, recess isn’t just “down time,” it’s learning time in its own way.
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