Each minute in a school day is precious. We need students to catch up and be on track with their learning. Meanwhile, we feel pressure to add activities, elements, and aspects to their day, without always identifying what’ll be removed to create time. At the same time, some argue that academically focused time is likely to pay better dividends than allowing students to run and play with friends and classmates.
Without question, these are worthy considerations. However, robbing students of recess may have longer term consequences than we think. Giving students breaks from learning and time to shift their focus to activities that aren’t planned and structured by adults can offer some surprising learning and life benefits.
The American Academy of Pediatrics advises there are several important outcomes associated with what we’ve traditionally called recess. First, children, and even adolescents, are best able to focus on learning when they’ve periodic mental breaks to focus on non-academic topics and activities. Other countries and cultures have long embraced schedules with intense focus followed by frequent mental and physical breaks. For example, young students in Japanese schools typically are given ten-to-fifteen-minute breaks each hour.
Simply shifting focus from one activity to another can be advantageous to learning, but the most significant benefits appear to come from breaks allowing students to choose and be free from tight structure. Research and experience hold that following breaks students are better ready to re-engage and focus on academic learning. Importantly, even though recess isn’t typically a part of school schedules for adolescents, they still need and benefit from mental and physical breaks. The same is true for adults.
Beyond academic learning, unstructured but safe and supervised recesses provide students with opportunities to develop important interpersonal skills, such as resolving conflicts, negotiating priorities, forming relationships, developing perseverance, and sharing resources. These skills are important building blocks for social success that can often get bypassed when adults are immediately available to enforce rules, render judgments, and direct behavior. We might think of these experiences as opportunities for students to develop and apply social and emotional learning and skills.
A study by professors at the University of Colorado and University of Denver further reinforces the benefits of less structured and unstructured activities in yet another aspect of student development. Researchers found that students who spent more time in free play appeared to develop greater executive functioning: the ability to plan, make decisions, use information with purpose, successfully switch between tasks, and manage thoughts and feelings. Of course, there’s a strong connection between executive functioning and academic success. Students with well-developed executive functioning tend to be less dependent on adults to manage their behavior and are better able to focus on important tasks.
Additionally, time spent running, chasing, and active play during recess also contributes to the recommended sixty minutes of physical activity each day. As a result, recess helps to combat obesity and sedentary lifestyles that contribute to health problems later in life. It can also take the edge off energy that leads some students to fidget, squirm, and engage in off-task behavior.
Importantly, recess shouldn’t be confused with or seen as interchangeable with physical education. Physical education is intended to be a more formal environment in which students learn skills and activities that help them to make good life choices and develop a healthy, active lifestyle. Physical education is an important part of the education of young people. It can also contribute to the total minutes of activity in which students engage daily, but recess and physical education have different purposes and play separate roles in learning.
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers several recommendations regarding recess including:
Consider recess students’ free time. Resist over-structuring the time or withholding recess for academic or punitive reasons.
Schedule breaks of sufficient length for students to mentally decompress and be ready to re-engage.
Treat recess as a complement to physical education, not an alternative or replacement.
Provide adequate supervision during recess but avoid unnecessary structuring of activities.
Finally, opportunities to decompress and refocus aren’t just for young people. We, too, need to make breaks and exercise part of our routines if we hope to do our best work and be fully present and ready to support students as they learn.