The Benefits of Recess in Primary School

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Anthony D. Pellegrini and Catherine M. Bohn-Gettler (2013), Scholarpedia, 8(2):30448. doi:10.4249/scholarpedia.30448 revision #130480 [link to/cite this article]
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Curator: Catherine M. Bohn-Gettler

Although recess has traditionally been a regular practice in primary school settings, today recess is being reduced or eliminated in an effort to provide more instructional time and increase achievement. However, empirical research does not support the elimination or reduction of recess. Research documents that recess affords many physical, cognitive, and social benefits for primary school children. These benefits have a positive effect on classroom behavior and achievement. In the current era of evidence-based practice, it is important to utilize empirical research when making decisions regarding educational policy.


The Benefits of Recess in Primary School

In primary schools, recess is a common practice during which children receive a break from the structured, academic parts of the day. Giving breaks is also a standard practice in the workforce, in an effort to increase productivity (Russell, 1932/1972). During recess, children interact freely with one another in an unstructured manner. Children develop their own games, decide which activities to engage in, and choose their playmates (Burghardt, 1988; Pellegrini & Holmes, 2006; Pellegrini & Smith, 1993; Waite-Stupiansky & Findlay, 2001). Although wide variation exists with regard to how recess is implemented, it often occurs outdoors, lasts approximately ten to fifteen minutes, and is combined with lunch (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDCP], 2010; Pellegrini & Bohn, 2005; Pellegrini & Holmes, 2006).

However, there has been a trend to reduce or eliminate recess time in primary schools in recent decades. The primary rationale for this is to improve achievement and standardized test scores. In the 1990s, improving achievement scores became a critical issue for schools and legislators, and it seemed logical that increasing instructional time would increase achievement. Given that there are a limited number of hours in the school day, recess seemed to be the most rational activity to reduce, despite articles detailing empirical research in support of recess (Pellegrini, 1991, 2005; Pellegrini & Glickman, 1989). However, in an era of evidence-based instruction, it is critical that educational decisions be grounded in empirical evidence. Scientific research consistently documents that recess plays an important role in the school day, and has benefits for children’s cognitive, social, and physical health (Bohn-Gettler & Pellegrini, in press). Furthermore, it can improve children’s achievement scores. The goal of this article is to advocate for children by providing research-based findings regarding recess. Considering that educational policy decisions should be driven by rigorous and scientific data (Jarrett & Maxwell, 2000), it is our hope to inform policy decisions regarding recess.

Decreasing Recess Time

As described, recess time is being cut in order to increase time spent on academic instruction. In the 1990s, some districts even abolished recess completely as part of school policy (Jarrett & Waite-Stupiansky, 2009; Johnson, 1998; Pellegrini, 1995), or built primary schools without playgrounds ("Schools becoming all work and no play," 2001). By the late 1990s, 40% of school districts in the United States had reduced or eliminated recess (Zygmunt-Fillwalk & Bilello, 2005). A similar trend was also occurring in the United Kingdom (Blatchford & Sumpner, 1998).

When the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001, recess time continued to be cut further as legislative pressures motivated schools to meet standards for achievement (Fedewa & Ahn, 2011; Jarrett & Waite-Stupiansky, 2009). In fact, 40% of public schools either got rid of, or planned to get rid of, at least one daily recess period (Bland, 2005; G. Klein, 2006), and most schools do not actually require daily recess periods (National Association for Sport and Physical Education & American Heart Association, 2010).

Of the schools who offer recess, its definition and the number and duration of recess periods varies considerably. Recess should be a time in which children can engage in unstructured free play that is not directed by adults (although it should be supervised). This does not uniformly occur among schools that offer recess: Some schools claim to offer recess, but it is adult directed, may only occur once a week, or may last less than 15 minutes (Dills, Morgan, & Rotthoff, 2011; National Center for Education Statistics, 2006; Pellegrini, 2005). In total, children have experienced a reduction of twelve hours of free time per week since the 1970s (Juster, Stafford, & Ono, 2004; Wingert, 2000).

In today’s educational world, increasing achievement is a top priority for school policy. One logical way in which to increase achievement is to spend more time on academic tasks. Without increasing the number of hours or days students are in school, this means cutting time elsewhere, and recess may seem the most logical time to cut because it is a break from more challenging academic tasks. Some even argue that reducing breaks in the day will help to maintain concentration and classroom routines (see Blatchford & Sumpner, 1998; "No Time for Play," 2001; and Pellegrini, 1995). Across many cultures, there is also a historical precedent for considering work and productivity as more positive than play and leisure time ("Great cultural revolution in progress: Workers' Mao Tse-Tung's thought propaganda teams in colleges and schools," 1968; Marx, 1906; Russell, 1932/1972; e.g., Sutton-Smith, Mechling, Johnson, & McMahon, 1999; Tawney, 1969). However, as we will describe, scientific evidence does not support the notion that reducing break time would improve concentration and achievement.

In addition to a movement to increase achievement, significant efforts are being invested in decreasing aggression and bullying in schools. Preventing bullying and aggression is incredibly important, and any instance of aggression constitutes a serious issue that should be immediately addressed. Aggression and bullying can negatively affect children’s lives and sometimes leads to serious and tragic consequences. Because recess represents unstructured playtime, many perceive playgrounds and other recess areas as being rife with aggression. Although it is vitally important to decrease aggression rates, decreasing recess is not the solution. Bullying and aggression occur in any setting where there is little adult supervision, such as hallways, locker rooms, bathrooms, and at lunch (Pellegrini, 2005). And, even though playgrounds tend to have less supervision than classrooms (Pellegrini, 1992; Pellegrini & Glickman, 1989), aggression constitutes less than 2% of playground behaviors (Pellegrini, 1995; Smith & Connolly, 1980). Instead of eliminating recess, providing more adult supervision can help to decrease aggression while still allowing children the opportunity to interact with their peers, practice conflict resolution skills, and cooperate with one another.

Some advocates of decreasing recess argue that physical education classes provide a more structured setting in which children can engage in physical activity, and thus should replace recess. In physical education, children receive adult-directed curricular instruction on health, fitness, physical activities and competencies, and rules of organized games. This standards-based instruction pushes children to learn and extend their capabilities. All of this is valuable for children’s development and health, however both recess and physical education are recommended because they offer differential benefits (CDCP, 2010; Council on Physical Education and Children [CPEC], 2001; Dills et al., 2011; Jarrett & Maxwell, 2005). Unlike in physical education classes, recess activities are child-directed, unstructured, and children choose activities and develop rules through cooperation. As we will discuss, allowing children to engage in unstructured and child-directed play is important for learning and development.

The Importance of Recess

Although a variety of arguments can be made for reducing or eliminating recess, it is critical to examine relevant empirical research. Controlled experiments document that recess can improve children’s attention to academic tasks, and thus enhance achievement and learning. For example, experimental research utilizing a variety of methodologies documents the importance of recess and unstructured free play on achievement, social competence, and physical health (Bohn-Gettler & Pellegrini, in press; Pellegrini, 2005). These types of empirical findings should drive educational policy decisions, to ensure that children receive the best possible conditions for learning and development.

Much of the research examining the benefits of recess are rooted in the theoretical grounding that recess allows time for children to engage in unstructured free play, during which they can be self-directed, practice important skills, and explore roles (Bateson, 2005; Pellegrini, 2009; Waite-Stupiansky & Findlay, 2001). Children are also physically active during play, and develop social, emotional and cognitive competencies. In short, recess allows children a realistic setting in which to cultivate skills, which we will now describe in more detail.

Physical Fitness. Although children can engage in a variety of activities during recess, at least 60% of children engage in physically active, social play (Pellegrini, 2009; Pellegrini & Smith, 1993). Children may even engage in higher levels of activity during recess compared to physical education classes (Kraft, 1989). Such activity builds strength, coordination, and cardiovascular fitness, and helps reduce childhood obesity and its associated health complications (CDCP, 2010; Dale, Corbin, & Dale, 2000; e.g., Simons-Morton, O'Hara, Simons-Morton, & Parcel, 1987; Waite-Stupiansky & Findlay, 2001). Physical play also helps children learn about movement and develop spatial perceptual abilities, beyond what can be learned from books or various forms of technology (Bergen, 1998). Furthermore, activity begets activity. When children are more physically active at school they are more likely to be physically active at home, and vice versa (Dale et al., 2000). In combination, this research suggests that recess, especially outdoor recess, encourages physical activity and can thus promote physical fitness (Pellegrini & Davis, 1993; Smith & Hagan, 1980).

Classroom Behavior. Recess is also associated with improved classroom behavior and attention. Research demonstrates that fidgeting increases prior to recess, especially when recess is delayed for a longer period of time. Fidgeting decreases after recess, especially when children engage in moderately vigorous play (Jarrett et al., 1998; Pellegrini & Davis, 1993; Pellegrini, Huberty, & Jones, 1995). This aligns with research indicating that overall classroom conduct and academic on-task behavior is higher for students who receive recess. The benefits of recess on classroom behavior are especially helpful when recess periods are provided directly before or after an academic lesson (Barros, Silver, & Stein, 2009; Fagerstrom & Mahoney, 2006; Pellegrini et al., 1995).

Social Skills. Recess also facilitates children’s social development and social competence (CDCP, 2010; Rogers & Sawyers, 1988; Waters & Sroufe, 1983). It provides an avenue for free interaction and play, and children will create and organize their own social games. Children must communicate with one another, interpret social signals and experiences, deal with conflict, take perspectives, manage stress, inhibit aggression, practice self-discipline, set and follow rules, and practice leadership skills (Bateson, 2005; Bergen, 1998; Bishop & Curtis, 2001; Fein, 1979; Ginsburg, 2007; Jambor, 1994; Jarrett & Maxwell, 2000; Sutton-Smith, 1990). Few real-world settings afford the learning and practice of such a multitude of skills.

In particular, recess provides a setting in which children can learn and practice cooperation, conflict resolution, and perspective taking skills. Although adults can teach children some of these skills, research documents that children learn and develop these skills more effectively when interacting with peers. This is because children are more likely to disagree with peers than with adults, and children are extremely motived to resolve conflicts with peers so that they can continue the play interaction (Hartup & Laursen, 1993; Rogers & Sawyers, 1988).

Cooperation and conflict resolution during unstructured free play also help children develop healthy friendships (Jarrett & Duckett-Hedgebeth, 2003; Waters & Sroufe, 1983). Friendships foster positive associations with school, reduce the stress that can occur in classroom settings, and facilitate learning and school success. Friendships also improve adjustment when children move from preschool to elementary school (Barros et al., 2009; Coie, Dodge, & Damon, 1998; Jambor, 1994; Ladd, Kochenderfer, & Coleman, 1996; Ladd, Price, & Hart, 1988; Pellegrini, 1992; Pellegrini & Bohn, 2005). In addition to building friendships, recess enables children to experience self-determination as they direct their own activities, develop self-esteem, solve problems, and feel control. They also develop cognitive skills through pretend play and reciprocal interactions (Pellegrini & Smith, 1998; Waters & Sroufe, 1983).

Cognitive Skills and Achievement. In addition to building social skills, recess is related to cognitive and academic skills (Bohn-Gettler & Pellegrini, in press; Jarrett, 2002; Pellegrini & Bohn, 2005). Theoretically, one reason this occurs is because recess allows for children to distribute their academic efforts over multiple practice sessions. Although the amount of time spent on an academic tasks positively predicts learning and achievement (see Brophy & Good, 1974, for a summary), this does not mean that learning should occur only in sessions that are long, intense, and that do not provide breaks. When working continuously, the brain becomes less efficient as a function of the amount of time elapsed without a break (Jensen, 1998; R. Klein & Armitage, 1979; Waite-Stupiansky & Findlay, 2001). Thus, distributing efforts results in improved attention, learning, memory, productivity, and achievement, particularly for academic tasks (Dempster, 1988; Ebbinghaus, 1885/1964; James, 1901; Kausler, Wiley, & Phillips, 1990; Toppino, Kasserman, & Mracek, 1991). In classroom settings, these findings are most robust when examining attention (Dempster, 1988). Thus, providing breaks, such as recess, helps to distribute practice and facilitate learning and achievement.

Although research documents that breaks are important for learning, what constitutes a true “break”? Empirical studies indicate that breaks should be more “drastic” in order to maximize the effects of distributed practice, especially for younger children. For example, simply changing from a math lesson to a reading lesson is not enough of a break (Ginsburg, 2007; Toppino et al., 1991). Academic learning tends to be more sedentary and has little social interaction. As a result, children, especially younger children, require a more physical and social change, such as the ability to engage in free play and direct their own activities (Bjorklund & Brown, 1998; Pellegrini & Davis, 1993). Recess can provide a true change from academic regiments, allowing for distributed practice of academic work to improve learning.

The benefits of recess and distributed practice are more pronounced among younger children. Young children process information differently than older children and adults, and many researchers argue that their way of thinking is functional and best suited for free play settings (Bateson, 1981; Bjorklund & Pellegrini, 2002). As an example, children often overestimate their abilities and social status, which promotes persistence and competence (Bandura, 1997; Smith & Boulton, 1990; Yussen & Levy, 1975). Younger children are less efficient at processing information, inhibiting task irrelevant thoughts, and reducing cognitive interference. As a result, more cognitive effort is required to complete tasks, making sustained attention a challenge (Bjorklund, 2004; Bjorklund & Green, 1992; e.g., Bjorklund & Harnishfeger, 1990; Harnishfeger & Pope, 1996; Lorsbach & Reimer, 1997; Pellegrini & Bjorklund, 1997; Piaget, 1983; Siegler, 1991). Therefore, younger children experience a greater degree of interference when engaging in focused, cognitive, academic tasks. This interference continues to build up even if children switch to another academic task.

Providing a greater change in activity, as is afforded by recess, helps release this cognitive interference (e.g., see Pellegrini & Bjorklund, 1997) and improves achievement and learning (Toppino et al., 1991). In line with this, children demonstrate improved academic attention, efficiency, and productivity following recess (especially for boys with ADHD), especially when afforded the opportunity for free outdoor play (e.g., Rowe & Rowe, 1992; e.g., Toppino et al., 1991). The longer students must wait for recess, the less attentive, productive, and efficient they become (Holmes, Pellegrini, & Schmidt, 2006; Jarrett et al., 1998; Pellegrini & Bjorklund, 1997; Pellegrini et al., 1995).

Recess also can improve achievement by providing a realistic setting in which children can learn and practice cognitive skills while interacting with peers, such as negotiation, following rules, and problem-solving. When engaging in play, children will break problems down into their component parts and put them back together (Bateson, 2005). For example, children will break down the rules of a game, and negotiate these rules with their peers (Jarrett & Maxwell, 2000; Jensen, 1998). All of this also requires that children communicate with one another such that they practice language skills. In fact, preschoolers employ a greater number of vocabulary words and verbalize more thoughts when engaging in open-ended activities with peers compared to with adults (Heath, 1983; Isbell & Raines, 1991; Pellegrini & Galda, 1982; Waite-Stupiansky & Findlay, 2001). In addition, when pretend play occurs during recess (as it often does), it fosters imagination and creativity (Bergen, 1998; Waite-Stupiansky & Findlay, 2001).

Given that all of these cognitive skills are learned and practiced at recess, it comes as no surprise that academic achievement is predicted by recess activities. For example, the physical activity students engage in during recess is linked with reading and math achievement and general intelligence (CDCP, 2010; Fedewa & Ahn, 2011; Hillman, Erickson, & Kramer, 2008). Practicing language and perspective-taking skills with peers also increases achievement (Bjorklund & Pellegrini, 2000). And, the skills that children demonstrate on the playground in kindergarten are predictive of their scores on a first grade standardized achievement test, even when controlling for kindergarten achievement. Thus, the activities and interactions children engage in during recess explain unique variance when predicting future achievement, beyond traditional indicators (Pellegrini & Bjorklund, 1997).


In summary, the theoretical and empirical research provide converging evidence that recess is vital for children’s physical, social, and cognitive development (Bohn-Gettler & Pellegrini, in press; Jarrett & Waite-Stupiansky, 2009; Pellegrini & Bohn, 2005; Pellegrini & Smith, 1993). In an era of promoting evidence-based instruction, policy decisions and instructional practices should be grounded in scientific research to promote positive development and learning among children.


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