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The Value of Play: Bringing Recess Back

By Emily Tipping

A mounting pile of research shows that kids do better in school—and in life—when they have access to free play and recess during the school day. And, in fact, many organizations in the know, from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to the National Association for Sport & Physical Education, strongly recommend that schools offer children a chance to play freely during the day.

But unfortunately, as the push for higher educational standards has evolved, many elementary schools have dropped recess in favor of more time for instruction. For some, it seemed a logical response to the increased demands of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and other legislation.

According to the 2012 Shape of the Nation Report; Status of Physical Education in the USA, from the National Association for Sport and Physical Education and the American heart Association, only 10 states require elementary schools to provide students with recess: Arkansas; Hawaii; Kansas; Mississippi; Missouri; North Dakota; Oklahoma; Rhode Island; Virginia; and Wisconsin. And research funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for Playworks, an organization that aims to bring recess back to the school day, and published in a report titled The State of Play, the amount of time given over to play and recess is shrinking—even for kindergartners.

"Up to 40 percent of U.S. school districts have reduced or eliminated recess in order to free up more time for core academics, and one in four elementary schools no longer provides recess to all grades," the report states.

As the century turned, Atlanta made news when new elementary schools were built without playgrounds, and schools in many states, including Pennsylvania, Illinois, Texas, New Jersey, Florida and California have also eliminated recess.

Recess was hardest hit in the areas that seemingly need it most. Children living in urban areas were less likely to enjoy a break in their school day, as well as African-American children (39 percent of whom had no recess, compared with 15 percent of white children, according to research from a 2003 issue of Teachers College Record), those living below the poverty line (44 percent of poor children vs. 17 percent of others), and those who are struggling academically.

"Ironically," writes Diane Cargile of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, "school districts that limit or eliminate recess to strengthen learning are likely to get just the opposite outcome."


Look at children's minds as beloved houseplants that need care and attention—watering and feeding are the equivalent of instruction. But if you spend too much time watering and feeding, your plants will not thrive.

According to the AAP, recess and physical education both serve to promote activity and a healthy lifestyle and should be a daily break for young children and adolescents. In a policy statement released in January 2013, the AAP states that, "Safe and properly supervised recess offers children cognitive, physical, emotional and social benefits. It should be used as a complement to physical education classes, not a substitute, and whether it's spent indoors or outdoors, recess should provide free, unstructured play or activity."

The authors of the study concluded that by minimizing or eliminating recess, schools would negatively affect academic achievement, as growing evidence links recess to improved physical health, social skills and cognitive development.

A 2009 Gallup poll of elementary school principals further reinforced the value of recess. When almost 2,000 principals nationwide were surveyed about recess, they responded enthusiastically:

  • Four out of five principals reported that recess has a positive impact on academic achievement.
  • Two-thirds of principals reported that students listen better after recess and are more focused in class.
  • Virtually all believe that recess has a positive impact on children's social development (96 percent) and general well-being (97 percent).

"This research sends a clear message to anyone interested in improving education or the overall well-being of America's children: It's time to take recess seriously," said Jane Lowe, team director for the Vulnerable Populations Portfolio at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which sponsored the research. "Recess should no longer be treated as an afterthought but as a core part of any strategy for promoting learning and improving health."

Despite this, the Gallup poll showed that one in five principals had cut recess minutes to meet teaching requirements.

But there are some states and schools where the tide that drowned recess is receding. Many states have seen legislation introduced that mandates recess for elementary school students, including Illinois, New Jersey and Connecticut.

The Chicago Public Schools made news a couple of years ago when it reintroduced recess back to the school day for elementary schools for the 2012-13 school year. On its website, the school district states, "The addition of recess to the elementary school day reflects the District's commitment to children's health and recognizes the critical role that schools can play in fostering lifelong habits of healthy eating and sustained physical activity. Providing opportunities for physical activity during the day, such as recess for elementary school students, increases the likelihood for children to be successful in school." And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported improvement from 2000 to 2006. In 2000, the CDC reported, 46 percent of districts required elementary schools to provide students with regularly scheduled recess. By 2006, that number had risen to 57 percent. And although not mandated, 79 percent of elementary schools surveyed by the CDC said they provided recess in 2006, up from 71 percent in 2001.

Add Boston to the list of schools that are bringing recess back. Boston Public Schools moved recently to require that all Boston schools from kindergarten through eighth grade have recess.