Articles of Interest

How Important Is Recess?

By Virginia Afman, LCSW, Clinical Supervisor of Outpatient Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services

Everyone benefits from a break. Research has long shown that it is more effective to integrate breaks into work rather than work for long stretches. For young children, who tend not to process information as well as older children, taking breaks for unstructured play is critical in increasing focus and attention.

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights recognizes the right of all children to play, regarding it as an essential part of their well-being. According to a Stanford University study, school recess offers benefits to students’ well-being, and recess is a profoundly important part of the school day. In addition, recess offers opportunities for children to learn and enhance communication skills, negotiation, cooperation, sharing, problem solving, perseverance, self-control, and conflict resolution.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued the policy statement “The Crucial Role of Recess in School” to make recommendations to schools, and its stance is unequivocal: “Recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it. Recess is necessary for the health and development of children and should never be withheld for punishment or for academic reasons.”

The National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends unstructured play as a developmentally appropriate means of reducing stress. Recess provides children with the opportunity to exert energy in a healthy way. And because recess is a break from the structure and expectations of school, children have the chance to take control of their world, even if only for a short time.

Additionally, recess offers children the opportunity to be physically active, which is not only beneficial for their physical health but also their mental health. Brain research has shown that the brain is activated during physical activity, much more so than during sedentary times.

Despite these positive benefits of recess, studies show that many schools (40% nationwide) have cut back recess programs or eliminated recess altogether. A recent Gallup poll commissioned by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported that 77% of school principals admitted that they withhold recess as punishment. In that same report, 8-in-10 principals acknowledged that time to play has a “positive impact on achievement,” and two-thirds of principals stated that “students listen better after recess and are more focused in class.”

All children benefit from recess, but when a child is struggling with a mental health disorder, the need for play is magnified. One-in-five children in the United States has a diagnosable mental disorder, and 1-in-10 youth has mental health challenges that are severe enough to impair how he/she functions at home, school, or in the community. These children often feel overwhelmed and are sometimes paralyzed by school stress and test anxiety. Some children respond to this stress by shutting down and refusing to attend school while others respond by acting out with “bad” behavior. These children can then get caught in a downward spiral that has a negative impact on their lives. While a number of adolescents and their parents are choosing cyber schools with the hope that it can alleviate some of the school stress, cyber-school can also further isolate teens from healthy social contact and natural supports unless opportunities for consistent and frequent socialization are provided.

School systems seem to be experiencing their own high stress situations with diminishing budgets, pressure to produce students with high academic achievements, and mounting safety concerns. It might be a good idea for all of us to step back, take a deep breath, and consider whether structuring more play time into the school day might help to alleviate stress on several levels. Consider something Plato said: “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Is it possible we could all discover more about ourselves and find creative solutions to some of our problems if we all allowed for more play time?