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School Recess: New Research Reveals Missed Opportunities

A new study focuses on recess.

"If the playground environment is one in which bullying and antisocial behaviors occur, it becomes difficult to make the claim that this environment inherently contributes to social, emotional, and cognitive health." —Research authors

When asked, “What is your favorite subject?” it’s not surprising when children smile, and say, "Recess," because they usually get to run around and be outside—often without close supervision. But are we really using recess to its maximum potential for growth? Recent researchers would say no—there’s room to grow. They went to over 500 elementary schools covering 22 urban locations and sought to not only observe but develop a tool to maximize learning on the playground.

The Power of the Playground

BMC Public Health published the findings, which clarified what opportunities we are missing by simply letting children run amok during recess. They identified specific areas, which we (as teachers, professionals, school administrators) can do some tweaking and produce not only physical growth, but perhaps mental, emotional, and social gains as well. They suggested recess can also teach:

  • Pro-Social Behavior. The playground can teach cooperation, turn-taking, conflict resolution, and friendship making. In this 2018 study, the authors suggest asking questions such as: Are children getting the chance to engage in activities they enjoy? Can children resolve conflicts amicably on their own? Are they learning key social skills? For example, last year I read about the “Buddy Bench” where schools placed them in the playground and if a child needed a friend—he or she sat there, and someone would join him or her. Simple but tremendously positive. Of course, it’s more complex than adding a bench, but what it illustrates is that solutions don’t have to break the bank. (This study also created a 17-point assessment tool.)
  • Positive Role-Modeling. This study suggests that having adults play alongside children—even if it’s a few times a week, can have hugely positive results. Teachers or assistants can help children recover from losing a game, resolve conflicts amicably, and include others when playing even if they’re different from you. Since bullying, in my experience, continues to be the number one problem on the playground, additional involvement by thoughtful adults can help diminish this epidemic across the United States.
  • Cooperative Play. Cooperative play is when a game is played, but everyone wins by working together. For example, I use the board game “Race to the Treasure” in my office—it’s a “cooperative play game” teaching children how to work together, which is especially useful for early childhood (K-5). Previous research recommends embedding the idea of cooperative play into recess, which increases the quality of recess for children. This isn’t new news but was highlighted once again in this study’s discussion.

Recess: Does It Make the Grade?

Today’s research reveals that recess, albeit a time for physical exercise, is also a prime time to help children cooperate, resolve conflicts amicably, and learn skills of emotional as well as social health. Of course, there are more factors for a positive recess experience such as the level of adult engagement and quality of playground equipment (for safety and variety), but children today more than ever need emotional coaching in and out of the classroom at school. Ask any parent whose child has been bullied and quite often it happened on the lightly monitored playground. So transforming the playground to something more positive is what well-being-centered schools are doing, and thus raising a new generation of emotionally healthier children, one kickball game at a time.


Study in BMC Public Health by William V. Massey, Megan B. Stellino, Sean P. Mullen, Jennette Claassen and Megan Wilkison (2018). Link:…

Materials located at