Eliminating Recess: Depriving Kids in More Ways Than You Think

This week’s post is written by Arthur Grant, a child play researcher, writer, and father of three. As the founder of Muddy Smiles, he advocates for (loads) more play both in schools and at home.


As schools around the country push hard to reduce and eliminate recess time, child development and behavioral experts are pushing back even harder. There’s a good reason to keep up the fight – while children find growth through scholastic development, they’re reaping a different kind of benefit in the play yard. It’s where they have organic opportunities for social development and partake in healthy physical activity that reinvigorates body and brain.

We know that recess has the common-sense benefits of making the school day more active and keeping children in good spirits, but the benefits of periods of unstructured time throughout the day extend far beyond what some educators and parents realize and expect. And now that recess is being cut, our kids are in danger of missing out. Big time.

Here’s why schools need to prioritize play time:

Selective Risk Taking During Unstructured Play is Developmentally Beneficial

Instinctively, many educators and parents cringe at the suggestion that risky behavior would be accepted, let alone encouraged. It turns out, however, that those small risks kids take when we’re not watching are a fundamental part of their development, and many of their opportunities to test their own boundaries in this way happen during the kind of unstructured play that recess offers.

A scholarly review published by the Board of Regents of the University of Colorado delves into the fact that taking risks is a part of who we are as human beings, and that any action we take exposes us to some degree of risk. When we allow children to be free to take their own small risks, they are able to establish their own boundaries and negate feelings of anxiety caused by the unknown. Successfully taking risks and learning from mistakes can help to establish feelings of confidence. These experiences and discoveries are naturally facilitated when kids are given opportunities for unstructured play. [Source]

Regularly Engaging in Physical Activity May Give Rise to Healthy, Active Adulthood

The mutual goal of educators and parents is to keep children on a developmentally appropriate path to a happy, healthy adulthood. There’s myriad scientific evidence showing us that physical activity is genuinely necessary for our students. It doesn’t just significantly reduce the chance of childhood obesity, it can also improve their mental state and may help to treat or prevent childhood depression.

One way that kids benefit from the kind of regular physical activity that’s offered by daily recess was noted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. They suggest that children who are frequently active tend to become more active adults, and that the development of programs and activities that engage children and keep them interested – like recess – help to establish a lifelong love of staying physically active. This also improves their chances of good health going into adulthood, as it reduces their chance of high blood pressure and cholesterol. [Source]

Unstructured Play Time Facilitates a Better Understanding of Personal Responsibility

American youth now have a lowered locus of control. This means that, increasingly, they believe that forces outside themselves have a greater impact on the outcome of their lives than they themselves do. This is a dangerous pattern of thought, as it allows both children and adults to disconnect from the importance of personal responsibility.

Dual meta-analyses, as reviewed in one 2004 study on the increasing externalization of the locus of control in young Americans, have demonstrated that this diminishing sense of personal responsibility leads to negative consequences for those who embrace it. How does the need for recess factor in? Opportunities for unstructured play allow kids to make their own decisions, harness their talents and choose their own path. They learn problem-solving skills, see things through to the finish and understand their own capacity to accomplish things. This allows them to feel more self confident, more in control and less helpless.

Recess Periods Can Help Make The Transition Into School Easier

Starting their school years can be a tremendous emotional undertaking for some children, particularly those who have had limited social exposure to other children. This transitional period isn’t quite as tough on all kids, but the ones that struggle may act out or be withdrawn or distraught. They’re making a big transition, and the opportunity to reduce stress and socialize during recess has been shown to make their transition into first grade an easier one.

A short-term longitudinal study published in the American Educational Research Journal observed groups of children as they completed their first grade. It was shown that both male and female children were able to adjust more easily to a school setting when they played games during recess time. It’s an important time for them socially, as they’re finding their place and learning to interact with children their own age, some of them for the first time. Recess games tend to encourage both physical play and socialization that can help children to bond and make friends. [Source]

Unstructured Play Opportunities Strengthens Their Self-Esteem

When kids feel good about themselves, they’re more socially confident, try things more easily and persist at reaching their goals. Healthy self-esteem is an important part of their early success, helping them fit in with peers and face challenges with bravery. When children struggle with low self-esteem, they’re more likely to fall behind socially and academically as well as experience depression and anxiety.

Unstructured social free play such as that provided by recess has been shown to correlate with healthy levels of childhood self-esteem. A study on the mediating effect of self-esteem and depression as correlated with physical activity and academic performance chronicled one anonymous assessment of 348 children in 4th through 8th grades, with results demonstrating a link between regular physical and social play and high self-esteem. Engaging in these types of play with peers creates bonds that help kids to feel good about themselves, reinforcing their place in the social structure and helping them tackle challenges with a greater sense of resilience. That means when kids spend time with friends on the play yard, they’re benefiting emotionally, academically and socially. [Source]

Put simply: Kids need unstructured play. During school time, recess is when this happens. It is imperative that we fight to promote and protect it in our education system. Our children’s health and well-being depend on it now and potentially for the rest of their lives.


  • Laura says:

    I am, truly, a dinosaur from another era. Many things have changed over the years of my career, but I continue to buck the trend and try to get my class out for a break almost every day in addition to recess. It lets high-energy kids burn off some excess energy and perks the low-energy kids up. We all come back in calmer, happier and more focused.Don’t be surprised if you see me on the swings 😉

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