October 19, 2015

MacKenzie Masten

The Impact of Recess on Child Development

Topics: Learning Through Play



Recess Has Changed

When asked what I miss most about being a child, recess is the first thing that comes to mind. No matter how difficult the day was in school, there was recess, a beacon of hope where you would get unstructured time to just play. It was a time to imagine, create, explore and essentially be a kid. That sacred time for play has been replaced in recent years with more academically focused activity. More time for learning in the classroom is supposed to benefit kids, but there’s a price to pay when you take away play.

Why Did Recess Change?

The change in recess time can be attributed to a ripple effect over the last 15 years in the wake of ‘No Child Left Behind’. Rather than reforming and improving our childrens’ education and recognizing that different students learn and succeed in different ways, NCLB created a one size fits all type of program that, in the end, didn't live up to the promise of its name. Schools faced pressure from the government to increase standardized test scores—but at what cost? When the No Child Left Behind Act became law, schools began to drop their allocated time for recess and add more time for learning.

Why Do We Care?

The idea behind cutting recess was justifiable in theory, but the negative effect it’s having on children outweighs the potential for higher test scores. Kids health problems are on the rise and child development is negatively effected, and studies have demonstrated that a lack of play time has been at least partially responsible. Recess is a crucial part of a child’s development as it is a source of a well-needed cognitive break from learning in the classroom. By restricting recess time, we are not allowing our children to reach their full potential, academically or emotionally.

Are There Negative Effects?

The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that recess is key in the development of kids’ social, emotional, cognitive and physical skills as well as health. Without adequate time for play, children lack the opportunities to build social skills, expand their creativity, or gain problem solving skills. It strips them of a time to run, to laugh, and to explore the realms of their imaginations while building social relationships with their peers. Restricting recess prevents children from expanding their minds and limits their abilities to approach the problems presented in the classroom with new and exciting perspectives. 

According to the CDC diagnoses of ADHD, obesity, depression and anxiety are all on the rise as the amount of time children are forced to sit in the classroom increases.  Students no longer have an outlet to express their frustrations, burn off energy or refine their motor skills. Compared to students in the 1980s, who had recess twice a day, only one out of twelve students today have normal strength and balance. Our children need to move—it’s an essential part of early child development.

Will We Be Able to Bring Back Recess?

A few weeks ago we published an article titled, “Everything You Need to Know About the Every Child Achieves Act” where we broke down the future effects of this potential new law. One of the positive results of the new act would dramatically affect the way schools sanction their time for learning. Essentially, if the ECAA comes into law it will work to replace the negative effects of NCLB and help refocus schools’ attention on nurturing all aspects of childrens’ minds.

Outdoor unstructured play has also been credited as being one of the best ways to ignite creativity and fix “behavioral issues”. One school in particular has focused their attention on unstructured recess. The Swanson School in Auckland changed the way they approached it— seeing it as an asset to use rather than a problem. By providing its students with more space, trust, time, and “loose parts” the Swanson School has filled its halls with laughter, and its students learn critical developmental skills such as empathy, problem solving and balance.


The Benefits of Play:

Some of the known benefits of recess are:

  • Students are more on task during academic activities
  • Have improved memory
  • Are more focused
  • Develop a greater number of neural connections
  • Learn how to negotiate
  • Find ways to demonstrate leadership
  • Are able to teach their own games
  • Learn to take turns
  • Learn how to negotiate conflicts
  • Leads to more physical activity outside of the school setting


Fast Facts

  • Students have lost adequate play time in schools.
  • Recess was replaced with classes and time for learning.
  • Kids health problems, such as depression and anxiety, increase with lack of play time.
  • Schools need to bring recess back as it it is beneficial to development.
  • The Every Child Achieves Act will help schools work on full-child development.



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