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The Crucial Role of Recess
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by Leah Whigham

In the winter months of North Dakota, it is understandable when children's recess time is reduced due to dangerously cold weather. But there is also evidence that recess time is being cut short all over the country for reasons unrelated to weather. Schools report that recess has been cut back to reallocate time for academic learning. In addition, withholding recess is commonly used as a punishment or tool to drive desired behavioral outcomes. 

Recent research and a new policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) about the benefits of recess may give educators, school administrators, and parents a reason to reconsider the role of recess. The AAP statement, entitled the "Crucial Role of Recess in School," discusses the physical, social, emotional, and academic benefits of recess and concludes with the statement that "recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child's development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons."

The physical benefits of recess may be the most obvious. There is no doubt that physical activity and fitness are important for the healthy development of a child. In addition, given the rising childhood obesity rates, it is clear that our children need the opportunity to be physically active each day. Indeed, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least 60 minutes of physical activity for children each day. While physical education (PE) classes can meet part of that need, children in Grand Forks typically only have PE class 3 times each week. Recess can help meet the additional needs for physical activity and counterbalance the sedentary time spent in the classroom every day.

Recess also has additional unique advantages beyond the physical benefits.  The peer interactions that occur during the unstructured free play that happens at recess promote social and emotional learning and development in children.  Kids learn important communication skills during recess with situations that require cooperation, problem solving, negotiation, and compromise. Furthermore, adaptation and coping skills, including perseverance and self-control, are required during these interactions. These skills are necessary in life to deal effectively with others. Withholding recess may actually limit development of important skills in kids who need them the most.

In addition to the physical, social, and emotional benefits of recess, a significant amount of research indicates that recess can provide academic benefits through enhanced cognitive development. This benefit comes from both the exploratory aspect of an unstructured free-play time, but also from the interruption of focused periods of concentration in the classroom. Unstructured breaks from cognitive tasks have been shown to lead to increased attention and productivity in the classroom.

While there is consensus that daily, regular recess is important, the duration and timing of recess has not been conclusively determined. Duration tends to range anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes a day in studies conducted in the United States. In some countries, hourly breaks of 10 to 15 minutes are routine. With regards to the timing of recess, some studies have shown that recess following lunch results in a rushed lunch environment and increased food waste. It is presumed that children are anxious to partake in as much recess time as possible. This has led some schools to adopt a policy of recess before lunch. However, it is unclear if the timing of recess has the same effect on food waste if the lunch is time structured where children remain at lunch for a specified time until they are dismissed. Regardless of the order, there is consensus that adequate lunch time and recess time are both essential.

The AAP report and many studies are careful to point out the complementary role of physical education and recess. PE classes provide the break from sedentary classroom activities by adding physical activity to the child's day.  PE also introduces new motor skills, teaches new sports and the associated rules, and develops an appreciation for physical fitness throughout life. However, the structured nature of PE classes does not provide the social interactions or cognitive breaks that are provided during the unstructured free-play atmosphere of recess.

Clearly, schools play an important role in our children's lives, and the research related to recess can help teachers and school administrators make informed decisions about allocating school time in a way that maximally benefits learning and overall health.  Parents also play a big role. Understanding the importance of physical activity, free-choice play, and social interactions among peers is essential to helping families make informed decisions about allocating their time outside of the school day.