When I think back on my elementary school years, many of my memories are tied to the time I spent on the playground during recess. The playground is where I made my first friends in school while playing games together. As a kid, I spent much of my class time longing for recess and time to play. At my school, we had recess twice; once in the morning for 15 minutes and once in the afternoon for 30 minutes. If an ounce of that time was taken away from me, as a kid, I would’ve revolted.
Despite how important recess was to me as it is to many students, schools at both the district and state level don’t seem to share the same passion for recess. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at the district level, “only 22% of districts required daily recess for elementary school students. Fewer than half of these districts required at least 20 minutes of daily recess” and at the state level, “only 5 states required daily recess for elementary school students. Among these, only one state required at least 20 minutes of daily recess.” The reason for this decrease in recess over the years differs from school to school, but research suggests that “the trend can be traced back to the late eighties and was accelerated under No Child Left Behind” due to the fact that schools felt pressured “to show academic progress” (Scholastic). In an effort to show academic progress, recess was cut and replaced with more time spent in the classroom.
The problem with this mentality is that more time in the classroom rather than on the playground doesn’t necessarily equate to academic success among students. A study that was conducted in 2009 found that kids were better behaved when they were given “at least one recess period of 15 minutes or longer.” The kids displayed better behavior because they were able to take a break from learning through “unstructured, social breaks” during recess. Romina Barros, co-author of the study and developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center in Brooklyn said, “If you are able to behave in class, you are able to pay attention and grasp more concepts.” When students are able to take a break from the classroom by attending recess, they’re able to focus more in the classroom and absorb more knowledge as a result.
A student’s ability to absorb more information because of recess is related to how much exercise they get. For many students, recess is the most active time of the school day and there is research that shows that physical exercise is also tied to academic performance. According to the article, "Physical activity may help kids do better in school, studies say," Jill Adams writes that students who were more fit got better scores on standardized academic tests. In addition to that, students who were more active showed “greater attention” and had “faster cognitive processing speed.” Many students spend their unstructured time during recess running around and playing games, and time spent exercising has shown greater academic benefits than more time spent in the classroom.
Students also gain social and emotional benefits from having recess. Unstructured play time presents students with situations that develop important communication skills such as “cooperation, problem solving, negotiation, and compromise” (Whigham). Communication skills like those are important to learn as a kid because they are required “to deal effectively with others” as an adult. Although there are classroom activities that can help develop these communication skills for students, Catherine Ramstetter, who researches health promotion in schools, states that “recess is the one time a day when they go outside and are able to choose what they do…. this is important for children—for all of us human beings—to take breaks and do things that someone else isn’t telling us what to do.”
Recess is a time I will always remember fondly as an adult and I’m sure I’m not the only one.When we let children enjoy physical exercise, we allow for improved mental exercise in the classroom. The benefits of recess justify it's continued existence, if not encourage more schools to have recess or lengthen it.