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Playing at School: More Important Than We Thought?

The elimination of recess from many elementary schools may be detrimental

*First author is Matthew Fallon

Are kids getting the amount of exercise and play at school that they really need? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests they probably aren’t.

  • Only 3.8% of elementary schools provide daily physical education for the entire school year (1).
  • Between the 2001-2002 and the end of the 2006-2007 school year, physical education and recess time decreased by an average of 40 and 50 minutes per week, respectively (2).

So what, you say? The CDC report tells us that:

  • A decrease in time for play and exercise in children during the day makes it more difficult for these young students to maintain active lives.
  • Physical inactivity is a significant factor associated with the tripling of obesity in children since 1970.

This level of school activity is in stark contrast to the recommended level of play for children. It is recommended that children get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day (3). Children, beginning around age 6, spend over half of their waking day either in school or doing homework, so it would be reasonable to expect that they receive at least half of their bare minimum daily level of play during school hours. Yet as of 2007, the average elementary student gets less than 30 minutes of recess each day.

Young children especially need recess and time for free play:

  • Preschoolers expend nearly twice the energy at recess as do elementary school students (4).

Elementary school students are still active during recess, though not optimally so, engaging in physical activity 59% of the time and vigorous activity 21% of the time (5). This means that elementary students, getting slightly less than 30 minutes for recess, are physically active for even less time than they have for recess.

Children that don’t get any opportunity to play and exercise during school are unlikely to make up for it after school. An experiment conducted in 2000 found that children are less active after school when they have had no P.E. or recess during the day than if they were offered these opportunities for play (6). Habits built during school hours are carried home.

Why is recess play important?

  • The ability for a child to take a break from school and the daily routine during recess is not only important for their physical health, but also their mental activity. Attention and memory research has found improved recall when learning material is spaced rather than presented all at one time (7).
  • An experimental study with fourth-grade students found that the students were more attentive and less fidgety during class on days when there had been a recess break (8).
  • Physical activity also has a strong positive correlation with enhanced mental health (9).

So when schools take time for students to get exercise, it aids in the ability of their students to learn their material during the rest of the day and in the long-term mental health of their student body.

It’s social too!

Recess encourages social interaction and development for children in a unique play environment, where they are able to interact with large peer groups and cooperate to make the rules for their games and activities (10). They share folk culture, learn to resolve conflicts, and how to interact with peers (11). This contrasts with home play, which is usually alone or with an adult or one or two peers. It also contrats with extracurricular activities, which typically involve large peer groups but are adult directed. The development of positive peer relationships during recess can have long-term positive effects:

  • Development of positive peer relationships in preschool was significantly associated with positive adjustment in kindergarten and academic success in elementary and high school (12).
  • Peer relationships help children think about others’ points of view (13),
  • which serves as foundation for developing conflict-resolution and cooperative-learning skills (14).

In an era when childhood obesity has doubled over the past 30 years, and adolescent obesity has tripled over the same span (15), children and adolescents need more opportunity to be active during the day. Daily physical activity is also important for good mental health, a serious issue when adolescent psychosocial disorders are becoming more common (16). School play, particularly in a recess setting, also plays an important role in the positive development of school-age children, including academic success and development of social skills.

What you can do:

(1) Check to make sure children you care about have recess at school.

(2) If they don’t join campaigns to restore recess (they have step-by-step guidelines):

National Wildlife Federation:…



  1. CDC. School Health Policies and Programs Study (SHPPS) 2006. Journal of School Health. 27(8).
  2. McMurrer, J. (2008). Instructional time in elementary schools: A closer look at changes for specific subjects. Washington, DC: Center on Education Policy.
  3. Nader, P.R., Bradley, R.H., Houts, R.M., McRitchie, S.L., & O’Brien, M. (2008). Moderate to vigorous physical activity from 9 to 15 years. JAMA. 300(3):295-305
  4. McKenzie, T.L., Sallis, J.F., Elder, J.T., Berry, C.C., Hoy, P.L., Nader, P.R., Zive, M.M., & Broyles, S.L. (1997). Physical activity levels and prompts in young children at recess: A two-year study of a bi-ethnic sample. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. 68(3)
  5. Dale. D., Corbin, C. B., & Dale, K. S. (2000). Restricting opportunities to be active during school time: Do children compensate by increasing physical activity levels after school? Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 71(3), 240-248.
  6. Waite-Stupiansky, S., & Findlay, M. (2001). The fourth R: Recess and its link to learning. Educational Forum, 66(1), 16-24.
  7. Toppino, T. C., Kasserman, J. E., & Mracek, W. A. (1991). The effect of spacing repetitions on the recognition memory of young children and adults. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 51(1), 123-138.
  8. Jarrett, O. S , Maxwell, D. M., Dickerson. C., Hoge, P, Davies, G., & Yetley, A. (1998). The impact of recess on classroom behavior: Group effects and individual differences. Journal of Educational Research, 92(2). 121-126.
  9. Hassmén, P., Koivula, N., & Uutela, A. (2000). Physical exercise and psychological well-being: A population study in Finland. Preventive Medicine. 30(1), 17-25.
  10. Jarrett, O. S., Farokhi, B., Young, C., & Davies, G. (2001). Boys and girls at play: Games and recess at a southern urban elementary school. In S. Reifel (Ed.), Play and culture studies, Vol. 3: Theory in context and out (pp 147-170). Westport, CT: Ablex.
  11. Bishop, J. C., & Curtis, M. (Eds.). (2001). Play today in the primary school playground. Philadelphia: Open University Press.
  12. Ladd, G. W., Price, J. M., & Hart, C. H. (1988). Predicting preschoolers' peer status from their playground behaviors and peer contacts. Child Development, 59, 986-992.
  13. Guralnick, M. J. (1993). Developmentally appropriate practice in the assessment and intervention of children's peer relations. Topic in Early Childhood Special Education, 13, 344-371.
  14. Topping, K., & Ehly, S. (1998). Peer-assisted learning. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  15. Ogden, C.L., Carroll, M.D., Kit, B.K., Flegal, K.M. (2012). Prevalence of obesity and trends in body mass index among US children and adolescents, 1999-2010. Journal of the American Medical Association. 307(5), 483-490.
  16. Rutter, M., & Smith, D.J. (1995). Psychosocial disorders in young people: Time trends and their causes. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

*Matthew Fallon is a student at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA


1 Happiness and Growth Through Play

2 Playing with Heart

3 Children May Be Playing, But Their Brains Are Working

4 Is Pretend Play Good For Kids?

5 Playing at School: More Important Than We Thought?

6 Does Too Much Screen Time Make Kids Sick?

7 Infant Couch Potatoes

8 What's Better: Indoor or Outdoor Play?

9 Why Play with a Child?

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