Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Recess Is Endangered

The assault on recess is hurting our children.

Source: Pressmaster/Shuttershock

A perfect storm has gathered over America’s schoolyards. High-stakes testing, fear of litigation, budget crunches, and just plain ignorance have coalesced into a toxic mix that is reducing and eliminating recess for children, from kindergarten through high school. At the same time, a wealth of research has established the benefits of recess for academic achievement, physical development, and social competence. The evidence is so compelling that the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education, and the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, among others, have called for daily and adequate recess time as a fundamental educational right of children.

An excellent position paper, A Research-based Case for Recess, by Prof. Olga S. Jarrett of Georgia State University describes the threatened landscape of recess, its developmental benefits, and what parents and concerned citizens, even kids, can do. I draw on her important work.

How recess is disappearing. Since the enactment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the advent of high-stakes testing, 20 percent of U.S. school systems have decreased and, in some cases, eliminated recess time with average recess cuts of 50 minutes per week. The National Center for Educational Statistics reported that over 32 percent of school systems surveyed cut recess while only 5 percent increased it.

Recess cuts disproportionately fall on minority and poor students. Based on a randomly selected day in 2002 and a random sample of children, 85 percent of white children, but only 61 percent of African-American children, had recess. When access to recess is viewed by family income level, 83 percent of children above the poverty line have recess, compared to only 56 percebt of poor children.

These disparities are made worse when teachers and principals use recess-deprivation as a punishment. Despite clear statements from the American Academy of Pediatrics that recess should never be taken away as a punishment, surveys indicate that poor and African-American boys are particularly likely to be deprived of recess in this way.

Why recess is crucial. When schools make time for recess, academic achievement increases. In a study of fourth graders, children, particularly those with hyperactivity, were less fidgety and more on task after recess. Another study found higher scores on literacy tests and more class participation after recess breaks. A 2010 CDC review of eight studies on the links between school-based physical activity and academic performance concluded that every study found a positive association. Thus, the idea that recess should be curtailed or eliminated in order to devote more time to instruction and test prep is self-defeating.

International comparisons drive home this point. U.S. school children score far below their Finnish, Japanese, and Turkish counterparts on tests of reading and math. Yet, Japanese children have 10 to 20 minute breaks after each 45 minute lesson, while Finnish and Turkish children spend 15 minutes in play after each 45 minutes of work. Brain research suggests that these countries are on to something. The brain requires frequent down time to process information and regain attentional focus.

Recess also is an important arena for learning and practicing social skills. This unstructured (by adults) time is not just kids running around aimlessly. Observations of children’s play during recess find that children organize their own games, develop understanding of playing by the rules, resolve conflicts, practice leadership, and learn self-discipline, problem-solving, and planning. These naturally occurring behaviors can be enhanced by programs, such as Playworks and Peaceful Playgrounds, that train peers as conflict managers. A 2012 Stanford University study found that in schools with Playworks-organized recess, there were fewer instances of bullying, more vigorous physical activity, and smoother transitions from recess into the classroom, as compared to control group schools.

Finally, and not surprisingly, recess helps children become more physically active. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reviewed research on physical activity in different settings and concluded that opportunities for physical activity are higher during recess than at any other times of the day, including school-based physical education and after school. In fact, another study found that on days when children did not have recess or PE, their after school activity level went down. Children do not compensate for the lack of in-school physical activity; instead, as Prof. Jarrett notes, “inactivity breeds inactivity.” Meanwhile, U.S. children are in the midst of a childhood obesity epidemic. In 1980, 7 percent of 6 to 11 year olds were obese; by 2012, over 18 percent were obese. Overall, more than one-third of all U.S. children and teens are either overweight or obese. With the CDC recommending that children have a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical exercise daily, cutting recess is exactly the wrong way to go.

What can we do? First, because states and local school boards set recess policy, parents and concerned citizens need to become better informed. The National Association of State Boards of Education lists the PE and recess policies of every state in its State School Healthy Policy Database. We all can help disseminate research findings on the benefits of recess. We can encourage teachers, principals, and other educational staff to adopt alternatives to recess deprivation as a way to discipline children. We can lobby for recess as a fundamental educational right for every child.

More from Gail F. Melson Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Gail F. Melson Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today