Major Education Issues: Do Kids Really Need Recess?

By Lisa Hayes and Linda Wacyk

Major Education Issues: Do Kids Really Need Recess?

The new federal No Child Left Behind Act demands a lot more from schools. They are expected to steadily improve learning for all students. Some schools have responded by cutting back on playtime so students can spend more time learning.

But is that a good idea? Does that cause more stress in children and teachers?

As the pressure mounts for schools to increase academic learning, recess is losing out. Many schools have chosen to do away with outdoor activity in favor of more time in the classroom.

Some teachers are pleased to have the extra time each day. They say there are fewer fights on the playground, and kids don't lose focus while learning. They also report fewer playground injuries, which makes many parents happy.

Parents Question Schools' Issues and Policy On Recess

But other parents are stewing about their young children being forced to learn for six hours without a break -- and child development experts agree.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children took a stand as early as 1997 on the value of school recess and outdoor play. They contend that school recess is often the only time during the work week that children are able to be carefree-a time when their bodies, voices and schedules are not under tight control.

Other experts point out that when kids miss out on physical activity and stress-relieving play, they get distracted from learning anyway. When they don't get a break, they lose focus and can't concentrate when it's time to hit the books.

Benefits of Playtime

Is playtime really worth it?

Experts say yes. Play is a form of learning that unites the mind, body and spirit. Until at least the age of 9, a child's learning occurs best when the whole self is involved. Children use all their senses at once, instead of just sight and sound, and interact with peers to develop social skills.

Plus, recess allows potentially hyperactive kids to blow off steam, and gives teachers a chance to watch kids interact with their peers.

All this child's play is serious business for the folks at The American Association for the Child's Right to Play (IPA/USA). They point out that recess fills a human need -- even for adults.

After all, judges call a recess when courtroom participants become tired or unfocused. Congressional sessions recess for similar reasons. And businesses of all sizes give their employees recess (but we call them breaks).

Even the U.S. Army acknowledges the need for a ten-minute break every hour during training sessions. They believe this "at rest" session improves results when training is extended over a period of time. The experts at IPA/USA ask: Shouldn't our children be treated with as much respect?

The IPA/USA Elementary Recess Handbook presents a strong case for school recess. Here are just a few of the ways they say recess fits the bill for elementary aged children.

Recess meets a child's social and emotional needs in these ways:

  • For many children, the chance to play with friends is an important reason for coming to school.
  • Recess can lower stress and anxiety. Without a chance to relieve stress, children sometimes resort to outbursts, nail-biting and temper tantrums.
  • Recess provides a non-threatening way for children of different cultures to learn from each other.
  • Recess gives some children a chance to break away from classmates, collect their thoughts and be alone for a while.

Recess promotes brain development and learning in these ways:

  • Students who do not get a break are much more fidgety. Plus they miss out on watching and learning from other children.
  • Unstructured play allows children to explore and exercise their sense of wonder, which leads to creativity.
  • Vigorous exercise helps the heart pump fresh oxygen into the blood to nourish sluggish brains.

Recess meets the child's physical needs in these ways:

  • Physical activity can reduce cardiac risk factors like obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and inactive life styles.
  • Play in the great outdoors stimulates the senses: children breathe fresh air, move on blades of green grass, smell fresh plants and run to favorite landmarks.
  • Through rough and tumble play, children learn about their bodies' capabilities and how to control themselves in their environment.
  • Activities like jump rope, kickball and hopscotch encourage children to take turns, negotiate rules, and cooperate.

Promoting Recess

Despite all this evidence, 40 percent of U.S. schools do not provide children with recess.* What can you do to reverse this trend?

  • Talk to your child about what happens at recess. Does recess provide a chance to play freely and expend energy?
  • Network with other parents or PTA groups and find out what other children are experiencing.
  • Ask your child's classroom teacher when and how often the class has recess. The length of recess time is important as well as rules for deciding if children have indoor vs. outdoor recess. (See sidebar.) Ask what kinds of things keep a child from participating in recess.
  • Join with other parents, and set up a meeting with your principal to discuss recess and concerns.

What should you ask when you visit the school?

  • Who supervises children during recess?
  • What type of specialized training have these supervisors received?
  • Are they using indoor and outdoor space for maximum participation during recess?
  • Does the school have safe and adequate equipment used especially for recess?


* According to the The International Association for the Child's Right to Play.

Lisa Hayes is a journalist and contributing author from Petoskey, Michigan. Linda Wacyk is a former EduGuide editor.