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The Play Report Vol. 2

The role of recess in academics and whole child development

The Play Report Vol. 2

Decreasing daily recess time in order to increase academic preparation became a popular trend in the late 1980s. This was further accelerated by the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001. To demonstrate their commitment to high academic standards, urban schools in Atlanta constructed schools without playgrounds.

This has not resulted in increased test scores. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in over 40 global venues, data shows that U.S. math and science scores continue to go down below the average, while other countries have increased their scores and international ranking above the U.S.

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The role of recess in academics and whole child development

Changing Times for Recess Since the late 1980s, increasing pressure to improve academic performance has prompted schools to put more time toward classroom studies – time often taken away from recess.

Meanwhile, a growing body of research confirms that recess generates wide-ranging benefits – physical, social, emotional, and yes … academic.

Daily outdoor recess … is the fourth “R” because it helps children learn the other three. - Sandra Waite-Stupiansky and Marcia Findlay, 2001 3

The Play Report Vol. 2

What is Recess?

More than fun and games. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define recess as time offered daily for child-directed physical activity and play. “Child-directed� distinguishes recess from organized sports and physical education. And this essential difference accounts for many of the benefits recess brings to whole child development.

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The role of recess in academics and whole child development

Benefits of Recess Academic / Cognitive

Interestingly, time spent outside the classroom at recess yields real benefits in academic performance. Active, hands-on play at recess promotes development of intellectual constructs, cognitive understanding, problem solving skills and leadership qualities. Research shows that periodic recess breaks improve academic achievement – and that attempts to improve academic performance by eliminating recess may have the opposite effect. Playful periodic breaks in the form of unstructured recess enhance academic performance, maximize learning, and reduce cognitive interference associated with prolonged periods of instruction (David Bjorklund & Katherine K. Harnisfeger, 1987; Thomas Toppino et al., 1991).

Evidence from Asia and America shows improvement in schoolwork when instructional periods are reasonable in length followed by recess breaks. 5

The Play Report Vol. 2

The playground at recess is one of the few places where today’s children can actively confront, interpret, and learn from meaningful social experiences. - Tom Jambor (1994)

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The role of recess in academics and whole child development

Benefits of Recess (cont.)


Recess creates opportunities for social-emotional learning through

cooperation, negotiation, and sharing. When interacting with peers at recess, children learn respect for rules, self-discipline, problem solving, and conflict resolution skills.


Skills developed during recess help acquire nurturing and sustaining friendships that, promote positive school associations and reduce classroom stressors. Recess has been found to foster self-determination, self-esteem, and self-regulation – skills critical to managing stress at school.

Physical / Health

Recess allows children to enjoy being physically active. Daily recess builds strength, coordination, cardiovascular fitness, and moderates childhood obesity and its associated health complications. Children are more likely to be physically active at home if they are physically active at school.


Child-initiated pretend play that occurs at recess prompts children to consider multiple perspectives, playfully manipulate ideas and emotions, enhance cognitive integration, and expand divergent thinking skills. Pretend play fosters cognitive flexibility and creativity, which has been linked to creative performance later in life.

Scientific research holds that recess is a vital component of the school day that offers many benefits for whole child development.

- Anthony D. Pellegrini & Catherine M. Bohn-Gettler, 2013 7

The Play Report Vol. 2

Recess isn’t without its challenges. Some principals and administrators view recess as the time of day with the most discipline problems, injuries and liability concerns.

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The role of recess in academics and whole child development

A variety of factors make this unstructured play time a top candidate for cutbacks: Playground bullying – Because recess is often unstructured, playgrounds have been seen as breeding grounds for aggression. However, less than 2% of playground behavior is due to aggression.

Safety concerns – Playground safety encompasses many factors including access, location, presence or absence of crime, and the likelihood of injuries.

Liability concerns – Some school districts limit recess due to fear of lawsuits arising from accidents occurring during outdoor play. However, injury data reveals that 90% of playground injuries are considered minor in nature.

Recess being withheld for punitive/behavioral reasons – African American and Hispanic children from high poverty schools are often denied recess for behavioral issues. However, recess has been shown to contribute to better focus, on-task behavior, and improved behavior in children.

Recess isn’t child’s play for administrators and educators. But experts agree: it’s worth the effort.

Recess represents an unparalleled chance to increase physical activity among an extraordinary number of kids in the U.S. It’s also an underutilized opportunity to improve the overall learning environment in our schools. - Recess Rules, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2007 9

The Play Report Vol. 2

Recess lost: potential repercussions

Mounting evidence links reduced recess time to negative outcomes for children. Health concerns – The number of children ages 6-11 deemed obese has quadrupled in the U.S. in the last four decades. Recess offers children opportunities to be physically active. Participation in daily recess moderates childhood obesity and its associated health complications. Incidence of anxiety and depression – Anxiety disorders and depression diagnoses among children is on the rise. Antidepressant use has tripled over the past decade in children. Play can help protect against anxiety and depression. Underdeveloped social competence – Limiting outdoor recess deprives children from freely socializing with their peers, which may affect the development of social-emotional learning, executive function, and self control. Inflexibility – Unstructured outdoor play helps children develop the creativity and flexibility to thrive in unexpected situations. Limiting or eliminating play stunts their ability to be flexible. Risk aversion – Overprotecting and overmanaging children deprives them of opportunities to be challenged. Play spaces that provide appropriate challenge and risk allow children to sharpen their instincts and build risk-management and adaptive skills. Stifled creativity and imagination – Researchers correlate a decline in childhood creativity to lack of play.

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The role of recess in academics and whole child development

Although the current trend in many schools is to reduce or eliminate recess in order to increase time for academic preparation and improve academic achievement, empirical research does not support the elimination or reduction of recess for these purposes (Anthony D. Pellegrini & Catherine M. Bohn - Gettler, 2013).

Finland: less of this, more of that Finland spends about 30% less per student in their educational system than the United States. They have no mandated standardized tests, apart from one exam at the end of senior year. Also no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers. Their children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. According to Debbie Rhea, professor and an associate dean at Texas Christian University, Finnish 1st graders spend 4.5 hours a day in school: 3 hours in the classroom and another 1.5 hours at recess or “unstructured outdoor play.” In the United States, a typical 1st grader attends school 7 hours a day, but recess – particularly outdoor play – may not happen at all. Yet Finnish students continue to rank near the top in global academic comparisons. In 2000, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. By 2003, they led in math. And three years later, Finland was first out of 57 countries in science. Somehow the Finns achieve more by doing less – ironically, less of the things the U.S. has increased in pursuit of more effective education.

Play is important at this age. We value play. - Maija Rintola, Finland educator, 7- and 8-year-olds 11

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What you can do:

Understand Recess and its Benefits Promoting recess as a critical aspect of whole child development requires a team effort. Working together, parents, teachers, school administrators, and policy makers can safeguard this critical developmental activity – not as an alternative to academics, but rather as an essential component for overall educational success.

Know the facts Research identifies the benefits of recess on whole child development, and challenges reducing or eliminating recess from school. Once we understand recess is more than simply “play time,” the better equipped we are to protect it.

Defend recess Children look forward to recess—it is valuable to them. It should not be taken away as a form of punishment. If recess is removed, so will its positive effects as well.

Address societal factors devaluing recess Identify and provide research-based solutions for the barriers to children’s participation in recess. Working together, we can protect the times and spaces for recess to take place.

Respect recess as a key piece to the fitness puzzle Daily recess helps children to meet the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity each day.

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The role of recess in academics and whole child development

Researchers reported that daily recess periods were positively related to academic achievement, academic behaviors, and indicators of cognitive skills and attitudes including concentration, memory, self-esteem, and language skills. - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010 Article 31 of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNICEF, 1991) states that children have the right to relax and play. All kids deserve the fun of recess – along with its many developmental benefits.

Recess offers nearly half of the available opportunity to promote physical activity among kids during the school year. Trying to improve children’s health without focusing on recess forfeits our best chance for reaching students with the greatest need. - Recess Rules, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2007

Ironically, minimizing or eliminating recess may be counterproductive to academic achievement, as a growing body of evidence suggests that recess promotes not only physical health and social development but also cognitive performance. - “The Crucial Role of Recess in School,” Council on School Health 13

The Play Report Vol. 2

Playworld Systems:

creating a lasting legacy of play

A family-owned and operated U.S. manufacturer of playground equipment for all ages and abilities, Playworld Systems has been creating the world’s best play spaces for more than forty years, one playground at a time. Our systems bring safe, challenging, positive play to schools, public parks and private properties throughout the US and around the world.

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The role of recess in academics and whole child development

As play advocates, we promote excellent play through: Habitat Building quality spaces for quality play, with: • Expert Design that balances confidence with challenge • Superior Craftsmanship for outstanding safety and durability • Accessibility for people of all abilities, and communities of all sizes

Sustainability Creating lasting play environments, using: • Premium Materials for enduring integrity •G  reen Manufacturing, leading the industry in environmental sustainability •L  ifelong Play with designs for all ages (because play matters at every lifestage) • Innovation to keep play relevant and engaging

Education Spreading the word about the importance of outdoor play … and why it matters • Defining creative, healthy play • Promoting awareness of the importance of outdoor unstructured play • Promoting organizations that champion the importance of recess: There are many multidisciplinary associations and professional organizations advocating the importance of play and recess for whole child development (cognitive, creative, emotional, physical, social): “KaBOOM!” The Alliance for Childhood

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)

The Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP)

The International Council for Children’s Play (ICCP)

The International Play Association (IPA)

The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA)

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)

The Association for the Study of Play (TASP)

The U.S. Play Coalition 15

Learn more – and help us save play! This report was based on The Evolution of School Recess and Corresponding Implications for the Next Generation of Children white paper by Michael M. Patte, Ph.D. Professor of Education, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. For a complimentary copy and more information about the importance of recess to whole child development and academic performance: The Play Report is made possible in part by Playworld Systems.

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Profile for Northwest Playground

The Importance of Recess  

Recess is more than a break from school, find out why it is so important to development.

The Importance of Recess  

Recess is more than a break from school, find out why it is so important to development.