The pressure to improve academic performance and raise test scores has led many schools to reduce the frequency and duration of unstructured recess time for students. The thought is that academically focused time is likely to pay better dividends than allowing students to run and play with friends and classmates.
Yet, reality may not be what seems obvious. It turns out that giving students breaks from learning and time to refocus on activities that are not planned or structured by adults offers some surprising learning and life benefits.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (2013) notes a number of important outcomes from 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 of intense focus followed by mental and physical breaks. For example, young students in Japanese schools typically are given ten to fifteen minute breaks each hour.
Shifting focus from one academic activity to another can offer some advantages, but the most significant benefits appear to come from breaks that give students choice and are free from tight structure. Following breaks, students are generally 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.
Additionally, 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 often can be bypassed 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 (Wexler, 2014). These 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 strong connection between strong executive functioning and academic success. Students with well-developed executive functioning 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 contribute to the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity each day. As a result, recess time can help 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 other off-task behavior.
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 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. However, recess and physical education have different purposes and need to play separate roles in learning.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (2013) offers several recommendations regarding recess:
- 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 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.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2013). The crucial role of recess in school. Pediatrics, 131(1). doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-2993
Wexler, E. (2014, July 2). Study: Too many structured activities may hinder children’s executive functioning. Retrieved from Education Week website: blogs.edweek.org/teachers/teaching_now/2014/07/study_too_many_structured_activities_hinder_childrens_executive_functioning.html