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The Importance of Recess & Free Play

Recess and free play times are set aside times in the school day when students are given the opportunity to engage in physical activity and participate activities of their choice with other students. (Play and Playground Encyclopedia, Free Play) The National Education Association (NEA) strongly believes that engaging in recess and free play are critical to the development of students at all ages, particularly those in grades preK through eighth grade, as it encourages interpersonal interactions and problem-solving skills. Though recess and free play are most often made available to younger students, it is also important to allow older students time for these activities.

Unfortunately, over the past few decades, there has been a decline in the time set aside for recess and free play in America’s schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that recess for elementary school students is only required in eight states and that 40 percent of schools have reduced or cut recess within the last two decades. (Springboard to Active Schools, Keep Recess in School) The reason for the decline is often attributed to the need to increase instructional time for students in preparation for standardized testing. While on the surface, this may appear to be a viable reason, it does not take into consideration what students are losing by being denied periods of recess and free play during the school day.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has found that recess and free play have mental, emotional, physical, and social benefits to students that are “crucial and necessary” to their growth and development. (Pediatrics, The Crucial Role of Recess in School) Research has shown that children who participate in recess and free play are more attentive and productive in the classroom. Taking regular breaks from classroom work allows young children and adolescent students to have some down time, mentally decompress, and prepare to focus their attention when instruction resumes. This helps students increase productivity. (Edutopia, Research-Tested Benefits of Breaks)

In addition, during recess and free play periods, students develop emotional, social, problem-solving, and communication skills through their interactions with their peers. (Voice of Play, Back to School: The Benefits of Research) During periods of play, students have an opportunity to interact with their classmates and other students in the school on their own terms. (Verywell Family, The Importance of Free Play for Kids) This means that they are able to develop and practice communication and cooperation skills that enable them to build relationships while stimulating their brain to solve problems that may occur.

Another advantage of recess and free play is that it improves the attitudes of student, which leads to an improved school climate. A study conducted by Stanford University concluded that recess and free play allow students to be more engaged and feel more positive about school. These positive feelings about school manifest in improved student outcomes, such as attendance and achievement. The study revealed that students who participate in recess also have positive relationships with their peers and adults. This results in less bullying and fewer student conflicts. (Stanford News, School recess offers benefits to student well-being, Stanford educator reports)

Recess also gives students the benefit of physical activity, which has been drastically declining over the past several years. Research conducted by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation determined that only 36 percent of children achieve the amount of physical activity recommended by doctors. (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Recess Rules) This high rate of physical inactivity is raising growing concerns among health professionals who are concerned about increases in obesity rates among children, which has more than doubled in the last three decades. These professionals also believe that physical activity positively impacts the health and cognitive development of students. Inactivity is viewed as harmful to the overall development of children. (Biomed Research International, Physical Activity in Children’s Health and Cognition)

Many have argued that recess is not necessary because students are usually required to take physical education classes; however, recess and fair play involve so much more than simply physical activity. That is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that schools not utilize physical education classes as replacements for recess. The two have entirely different structures and purposes. In the article, “Why Recess is Different from PE,” author Rae Pica explains that physical education classes are structured, whereas recess and free play allow students to break from structure and make personal choices about what activities in which to engage and with whom. This promotes socialization and problem-solving skills in students. (Pathways to Family Wellness, Why Recess Is Different from PE)

Although few in number, not everyone has given up on recess and free play. The Council of State Governments published a report that outlined physical activity legislation in various states. The report indicates that schools are more likely to implement recess if there are state laws encouraging or mandating it. (The Council of State Governments, State Policies on Physical Activity in Schools) Since states have oversight of how schools structure their students time, recess, and free play should be addressed at the state level. In the Using State Policy to Create Healthy Schools report, researchers present a framework to show how state policies and statutes can promote healthy schools. The report revealed that less than half of the states (20) provide recess. (Child Trends, Using State Policy to Create Healthy Schools) Several states have passed laws requiring recess and free play in schools. Many of these states took action in response to the urging of parents and teachers. (Edutopia, Time to Play, More State Laws Require Recess)

With the above in mind, it is critical that states take action as it relates to declaring the importance of recess and free play in schools through legislation that makes it a part of the state education curriculum for all grade levels. This will give schools and school districts the support they need to create and implement recess and free play periods for students. Shape America has developed a guide for recess policies that includes recommended language, accountability measures, and rationales. (Shape America, Guide for Recess Policy)

There are some school districts taking recess and free play into their own hands by implementing programs for their students. Chicago Public Schools requires that all elementary and middle schools provide 20 minutes daily of recess time for students. (Chicago Public Schools, Physical Activity) The Minneapolis, Minnesota School participates in active recess programs. Active recess programs focus on having all students participate in a variety of activities using the Systematic Supervision approach in which supervisors interact with students and encourage them to play. (Minneapolis Public Schools, Play to Learn: Active Research Through Systemic Supervision)

Unfortunately, most states and school districts that support recess and free play incorporate it in elementary schools and some incorporate it in middle schools; however, very few, if any, incorporate it in high schools. Although less attention is given to recess and free play for older students, researchers have determined that there are benefits for these students as well, including opportunities to de-stress and work through their emotions as well as further develop their collaboration, social, and problem-solving skills. (Education World, Recess: Necessity or Nicety?) Recess and free play for high school students has been praised by teachers at schools that allow such breaks during the day. (Edutopia, Unplugging from Stress)

Based on the research and data supporting the necessity of recess and free play in schools, the NEA is committed to publicizing the crucial importance of these activities in the lives of students of all

ages. This toolkit combines resources with data driven and tested strategies that school districts may utilize to incorporate recess and free play into the daily schedules of students.

A good recess and free play plan benefits all students in all ways. Shape America has summarized the top 10 benefits of recess and developed a guide to help schools and school districts establish recess policies. The guide includes recommended language, accountability measures, and rationales.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in partnership with Shape America has created a toolkit of strategies to plan, organize and incorporate recess policies and activities into the school day. The overarching strategies promoted by the organizations are making leadership decisions, communicating expectations, creating a supportive environment, engaging the school community, and gathering information. Each strategy is presented in detail with corresponding steps on how to implement, including questions schools can ask to determine the strategies that will work best in their environment and key resources to implement various strategies. There are also templates provided to address training, behavior management, facilities, equipment, and other pertinent aspects of planning a recess program.

For those who support recess and free play and would like to encourage others to do so, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has developed a promotion kit that can be used to spread the word about recess and free play; it includes frequently asked questions, sample social media posts, infographics, and other tools.


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