The pressure to put students back on track academically and raise test scores has led many schools to reduce the frequency and duration of unstructured recess time. Meanwhile, the challenge of dealing with increasing incidents of misbehavior have led some educators and administrators to withhold recess as a consequence for off-task and unacceptable behaviors. In fact, in a recent survey more that 80% of educators reported reducing or withholding recess as punishment for misbehavior or academic performance.
Among the underlying assumptions driving these decisions is that recess, while useful to help students drain off some excess energy and connect with friends, is not important enough to be a priority over academics and behavior management. The thought is that academically focused time is likely to pay better dividends than allowing students to run and play with friends and classmates. And the threat of missing recess will be enough to influence behavior choices.
Yet, giving students breaks from learning and time to refocus on activities that are not planned and structured by adults offer some surprising learning and life benefits. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes several important outcomes associated with what we have traditionally called recess.
First, children and even adolescents are best able to focus on learning when they have periodic mental breaks to focus on non-academic topics and activities. Other countries and cultures have long embraced schedules with intense focus followed by mental and physical breaks. For example, young students in Japanese schools are typically given ten-to-fifteen-minute breaks each hour.
Second, while shifting focus from one academic activity to another can offer some advantages, the most significant benefits appear to come from breaks that allow students to choose and are free from tight structure. Following breaks, students are typically better ready to re-engage and focus on additional academic learning. Even though recess is not typically a part of school schedules for adolescents, they still need mental and physical breaks. The same is true for adults.
Third, unstructured, but safe and supervised recess provides 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 often can be by-passed when adults are immediately available to enforce rules, render judgments and direct behavior.
A recent study by professors at the University of Colorado and University of Denver further reinforces the benefits of less-structured and unstructured activities in 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. Obviously, there is a connection between strong executive functioning and academic success. Students with well-developed executive functioning capacity tend to be less dependent on adults to manage their behavior and focus on important tasks.
Of course, time spent during recess running, chasing, and in active play also contributes to the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity each day. As a result, recess time can help to combat obesity and sedentary life styles that contribute to health problems later in life. It can also take the edge off of energy that leads some students to fidget, squirm, and engage in other off-task behaviors.
Importantly, recess should not be confused with or seen as interchangeable with physical education. Physical education is intended to be a formal learning environment in which students learn skills and activities that can help them make good life choices, engage in formal physical activities, and develop a healthy, active life style. 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 need to 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.
A final thought: Opportunities to decompress and refocus are not just for young people. We need to make breaks and exercise a part of our routines if we hope to do our best work and be fully present and ready to support students as they learn.