Why Is Recess Important?

The discussion of recess has taken center stage in recent years, as parents, teachers, and educational leaders all over the country work to make the best decisions regarding how our children spend their school day. Schools have seen an increased emphasis on standardized testing since the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, and more recently, the adoption of the Common Core Standards. This has prompted school leadership to minimize and even eliminate recess time in order to provide more classroom instructional time.

There is a growing and undeniable body of research documenting the power of recess to improve student achievement and overall health. In fact, many pediatricians and psychologists argue that recess is as important as class time in order for students to perform their best. Students need this unstructured time for their minds to take a break. Recess has also been shown to improve productivity, concentration, and even creativity. Our brains need to take downtime between cognitive challenges. We see this in our own adult lives. It is difficult for us to stay focused on complex tasks for prolonged periods of time. Taking a break to walk around, get fresh air, or talk with a friend or colleague is necessary in our work day; it is the same, if not more necessary, for our children.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children need “60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day.” Some will argue that students can get this physical activity during Physical Education class. However, a Physical Education class is not the same as recess. A Physical Education class has different goals, including instruction and exposure to sports within a teacher-led environment. Similar to the classroom, there is a performance expectation that results in a report card grade. Consequently, Physical Education class, although beneficial, should not be considered a reasonable substitute for recess because it does not provide the mental beak that students need in their day.

Aside from cognitive and physical benefits, recess is also an important time for social interaction and conflict resolution. Students have real opportunities to negotiate, share, cooperate, and practice coping skills like self-control and perseverance. These social skills are important to overall health, and students lacking conflict resolution skills will certainly suffer in the long run.  Unfortunately, many schools condone withholding recess as a punishment for misbehavior or irresponsibility. This practice will often backfire when students who desperately need movement, peer interaction, and a mental break are kept in the classroom to finish schoolwork or sit idly against a wall outside. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics has chimed in on this issue. They believe that “recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.”

Minimizing or even eliminating recess from the school day may be counterproductive to academic achievement. Because recess policies vary state to state and school to school, it is important for parents to know how their child’s school views recess and if the withholding of recess is ever used as punishment.