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Science Backed Benefits of Recess

One of the few things that all children like about going to school is recess, which is why barring kids from participating in recess when they’re acting out is something that happens the world over.



While one of the primary aims of most schools is to ‘discipline’ kids, according to research banning recess may actually do more harm than good. It’s been proven that recess benefits kids’ mental, physical, and behavioural health. And so when a disciplinary tactic is in the form of not allowing kids to play and enjoy fresh air, the consequences may not exactly be in line with what is intended. 


The practice, although now on the decline, was once very common across the country. Administrators argued that taking away free-play time can effectively curb poor behaviour in students. 


A 2009 study from researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, demonstrated that elementary school children who got more free time during the day received higher ratings from teachers on classroom behaviour, compared to those who had minimal or no recess time. It, therefore, makes a lot of sense to allow children to have a break in school, one that allows for free and unstructured play - the definition of recess. 

The strength of this study comes from its huge size. The authors used data from a broad survey of over 15,000 8 to 9-year-old children. It was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. Most students were third graders and came from all major ethnic groups and geographical areas in the States. 


The study comprised an equal number of boys and girls who attended both public and private schools. Parents were from different educational backgrounds, ranging from those who had not finished high school to those having a graduate degree. All socioeconomic levels were represented, as were rural and urban communities. 


The study found the dreadful situation of recess in the United States:


  • A great three in ten children had either no recess or only enjoyed a minimal (less than 15 minutes) break during the day. 

  • Black or Hispanic children, those who came from lower-income families, parents with less education, or were living in larger cities and in the South, were found to be more likely to be denied recess. 


The authors also emphasized that children today have way less free time in school than they did in the 1960s or 1970s. They assume that this could be due to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and to meet the demands of law that requires schools to enhance test scores in reading and math. Schools have been found to have lessened recess, art programs, and physical education, which is nothing but appalling. 


A 2010 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation conducted a survey and found that 77 percent of principals were reported to be withholding recess as punishment. While this percentage might seem large to you, this is, in fact, a small reduction from the results of a 2006 study published in the Journal of School Health, which had discovered the percentage of schools with no-recess policy to be a bigger figure of 81%. Many school districts are now refraining from the practice due to growing awareness. 


Sara Zimmerman, the technical-assistance director of Safe Routes to School National Partnership, in an interview with Education Week says that physical activity and unstructured play aren’t luxuries for kids but are instead a key part of how they learn and grow. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics, in a 2012 position paper, stated that safe and supervised recess benefits students’ cognitive, emotional, social as well as physical development by giving them a break from the academic challenges they face in the classroom. Experts from the academy also said, “Recess is unique from, and a complement to, physical education - not a substitute for it.”


Research has proven that at least 20 minutes of recess - which is the suggested time from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - can help children become more productive and attentive in class. It has also been proven that with the unstructured playtime, children develop communication skills, including problem-solving and cooperation. It’s also found to help with coping skills, such as self-control and determination. 


Moreover, a 2014 University of Colorado-Boulder study published in Frontiers in Psychology discovered that 6-year-olds who engaged more in free play and unstructured activities held higher levels of executive functioning, including time management and decision-making skills. 


Executive functioning is incredibly important for children. It helps them throughout their daily lives in ways we can’t imagine. They learn to flexibly switch between different activities instead of getting stuck on one thing. They also learn to stop themselves from yelling when angry and delay gratification. Executive functioning at an early age also foretells important outcomes, like health, wealth, academic performance, and criminality. 


In fact, lawmakers have now started recognizing the necessity of recess for students. At least 11 U.S. states had already passed laws prohibiting schools from forbidding recess as a form of discipline by 2015 according to Education Week. Lawmakers in Massachusetts were recently looking at make 20 minutes of recess mandatory in schools. 


Recess plays an undoubtedly crucial role in a kid’s life. It’s extremely important to allow kids to just be kids, recess gives them an opportunity to get to know each other, build bonds, and make friends while also becoming aware of their own capabilities. Children can be supervised to keep them safe, help build leadership abilities and encourage a healthy lifestyle, for example, Recess Guardians uses strategic approaches to teach youth positive building blocks for their future in a fun, safe and educational environment. 


Let’s hope that more and more schools join hands in using recess time as an effective way of improving children’s lives as well as academic grades. 


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