Shrinking Recess May Be Damaging Your Kid

Neve Spicer
Written by Neve Spicer Updated on October 11th, 2022

The happiest, healthiest kids are the ones who have the chance to cut loose, get active and spend time with friends. Recess is a time when kids relieve stress, build social skills and get physically active through fun playground games, but some schools are drastically reducing recess times or eliminating them outright. The scientifically proven importance of play as a facilitator of healthy child development delivers a crystal clear message: Recess time should not be reduced, and it absolutely should not be eliminated.

The literature indicates that kids who have the opportunity to break up the school day with unstructured play feel less stressed out and more self-confident, plus they’re at a reduced risk of childhood obesity and various mental health issues. In both the short and long term, shrinking recess is seriously detrimental to kids.

Science Agrees, School Recess Is Vital [infographic]

Examining the Evidence

This roundup of 20 important scientific studies demonstrates how beneficial recess can be for our kids and how much they have to lose if it’s taken away.

Cognitive & Academic Achievement

1) Improves Attentiveness

Kids get the most value out of their school time when they’re paying attention in class, and that can be hard for them to do when they’re trapped in the classroom for long periods of time without a break. Recess gives kids a break from focusing on their schoolwork so that when they return to class, they’re really ready to learn.

A group of field experiments were conducted on elementary school children in order to determine the effect of recess timing on kids’ classroom behavior. In the first experiment, kindergartners, second and fourth graders had their recess time pushed back by 30 minutes. The second experiment used the same concept on another group of second and fourth graders in the same school. In both experiments, the longer kids were deprived of an opportunity to play, the more their attentiveness declined. After the kids were allowed to take recess, their attentiveness improved.

Key study/paper:
 Pellegrini A. et al. (1995). “The effects of recess timing on children’s playground and classroom behaviours”. American Educational Research Journal, 32(4)


2) Leads to Positive Classroom Behavior

Valuable learning time gets lost when kids misbehave in the classroom, and boredom and restlessness are two major culprits in provoking impish antics in kids. Scheduling some time for them to goof off and be kids doesn’t just make them happy, it also calms them down and prepares them to focus during their lessons.

Child, parent, school and classroom characteristics of groups of fourth graders receiving a daily recess period and those without were assessed in dual studies of public data. In one aspect of this study, teachers were asked to give their class a rating based on their classroom behavior, called a TRCB score. Groups who were allowed to participate in a recess period received a higher TRCB score than those who did not. Teachers also noted that children were more focused and less fidgety when recess was over, improving the learning environment.

Key study/paper: Ramona M Barros, Ellen J Silver, Ruth Ek Stein. (2009). “School recess and group classroom behaviour”. Pediatrics, 123(2),431. 


3) Increases Cognitive Performance

Starting at a young age, time for social and physical free play at school can play a major role in how much kids thrive in the classroom. We want their time in school to be meaningful, and when they’re drudging through tasks and out of energy for focusing, they need some time to chill out and interact with friends.

A classroom study conducted on a group of American preschoolers before, during and after research found that those engaging in social interaction during recess periods saw improvements in cognitive performance. They were better able to give their full attention to tasks and projects once they returned to the classroom after a prolonged period of outdoor free play, much like their older peers.

Key study/paper: Pellegrini D et al. (2006). “The effects of different recess timing regimen on preschoolers classroom attention”. Early Child Development and Care 17(6):735-748. 


4) Boosts Academic Achievement

When kids stay physically active, they reap numerous benefits. Not only are they less likely to struggle with obesity, they’re also forming meaningful habits that will have a positive effect on their long term health and learning to enjoy staying fit. There’s also evidence that the kind of moderate to intense physical activity that recess provides can reduce social and emotional issues, thus improving academic performance.

In a large scale study on primary school students in China, 17,000 kids between ages 6 – 11 were assessed. Their head teacher took note of the amount of time they spent engaging in qualifying physical activity, comparing the data against their academic results. There was a clear correlation between periods of physical activity and improved academic results, including a decrease in conduct issues, hyperactive behavior, interpersonal conflict and lack of focus.

Key study/paper: Yunting Zhang, Donglan Zhang, Frederick Ho, (2019). “Social-emotional functioning explains the effects of physical activity on academic performance among chinese primary school students: A mediation analysis”. The Journal of Pediatrics 208:74-80. 


Social & Emotional Development

5) Promotes Peer Relationships

Most of us have at least a few fond memories of recess floating around, and it’s likely they revolve around fun games that we didn’t realize were a workout at the time. Hopscotch, Horse and a litany of playground classics encourage kids to engage in healthy physical activity that also offers copious chances for bonding and making friends.

Anonymous questionnaires were used to collect data from students in fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth grades regarding their physical activity, peer relationships and self-esteem. After researchers adjusted the data for the bias of self-reporting, the 2010 study still offered demonstrable results correlating physical activity, an increase in self-esteem and an improvement in socialization and peer relationships. 

Key study/paper: Henna L Haapala, Kaarlo Laine, et al. (2014). “Recess physical activity and school related social factors in Finnish primary and lower secondary schools: cross-sectional associations”. BMC Public Health 14:1114. 


6) Strengthens Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is especially essential for our kids. It’s what encourages them to make new friends, try new things and persist in the face of difficulties. We believe in them beyond measure, but it’s key to their academic and social success that they believe in themselves, too. Believe it or not, even here, recess plays an important role.

When 358 fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth graders were assessed via anonymous questionnaire regarding their physical activity, self-esteem and peer relationships, the results advocated hard for the benefits of recess. There’s a correlation between the kind of physical and social play that happens in the schoolyard and the sense of self-esteem our kids need to succeed and feel good about themselves.

Key study/paper: Kayani S. et al. (2018). “Physical Activity and Academic Performance: The Mediating Effect of Self-Esteem and Depression”. Sustainability, 10(10):3633.


7) Creates Social-Emotional Resilience

We give our kids everything we’ve got, but they’ll always need one thing we can’t provide – healthy peer interaction. As parents, we can and should facilitate it, but our presence can’t and shouldn’t take the place of age-appropriate friendships that help kids form social skills, learn to moderate emotions and form lasting bonds with others. Recess gives our kids a chance to engage in games that are both social and physical, which builds and improves friendships and can teach valuable peer mediation skills.

The correlation between moderate to vigorous physical activity and academics, mental health and social ability was examined in a study of 17,000 Chinese primary school students. The physical activity of the children, aged 6 – 11, was recorded by their head teacher, while their parents provided ratings of the children’s behavioral, social and emotional issues. When these data sets were compared, it became clear that the kind of physical and social activity recess offers helps kids to improve their interactions with peers, build better friendships and avoid conduct difficulties.

Key study/paper: Yunting Zhang, Donglan Zhang, Frederick Ho, (2019). “Social-emotional functioning explains the effects of physical activity on academic performance among chinese primary school students: A mediation analysis”. The Journal of Pediatrics 208:74-80.


8) Gives Rise to a Positive School Experience

When kids really enjoy being at school, they naturally do better. Feeling connected to peers, school and community is one of the first ways children learn how to be a part of a society. When they feel a lack of connection to their school and classmates, it’s easy for them to feel isolated, contributing to negative feelings about their school experience. Children who are given the chance to participate in a physically active recess are more likely to feel a sense of “relatedness” to their school and their classmates, leading to more positive feelings toward school.

A self-reporting anonymous questionnaire was given to over 1,000 fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth grade students inquiring about their level of physical activity, friendships and self-esteem. When reviewed, results showed that children who were engaging in the kind of physical and social play recess provides were more likely to feel connectivity with their school and peers.

Key study/paper: Henna L Haapala, Kaarlo Laine, et al. (2014). “Recess physical activity and school related social factors in Finnish primary and lower secondary schools: cross-sectional associations”. BMC Public Health 14:1114. 


9) Teaches Children about Themselves

Discovering the world they live in is how children learn and grow. While our natural desire is to protect them at all times and at all costs, a little bit of freedom is essential for our kids’ personal growth. They need to be able to interact with the world, challenge themselves physically and navigate the complex social situations that develop as they enter school. Recess gives kids time to explore their imagination through free play, test their physical ability and find their place socially.

As one scholarly review notes, risk taking behavior is an inherent part of human existence – there’s some element of risk in everything we do, and taking early risks helps kids learn their limits and avoid anxiety. They’re also learning their capabilities, and may surprise themselves by discovering a hidden talent. What we know for sure is that giving kids free playtime for self-exploration is something that makes these discoveries possible. 

Key study/paper: Jambor Tl. (1986). “Risk-taking Needs in Children: An Accommodating Play Environment”. Children’s Environments Quarterly 3(4):22-25. 


10) Fosters Social Skills

All kids go through a me-first stage when they’re little. It’s a natural part of identity development, but as they grow, our kiddos quickly learn that it’s not all about them. Learning to feel empathy, engage in compromise, be cooperative, share with others and negotiate are all essential social skills learned in childhood that we carry throughout our lives. When kids take on roleplaying games during recess, they engage in the kind of communication and compromise skills they need to be successful socially.

A study on the forms and possible functions of childhood play pinpoints situations where children use empathy to ensure that all of the players in a game with roles have a good time. The “big kid” doesn’t always have to be the bad guy, and the girls don’t always have to be princesses. Respectful negotiation and willingness to share are values and abilities that are naturally promoted by social play, because they facilitate positive relationships with peers.

Key study/paper: Pellegrini, Smith. (1998). “The Development of Play During Childhood: Forms and Possible Functions”. Association for Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 3(2) 


11) Helps School Adjustment and Transition

Starting school is a big deal for both parents and kids. For us, it means letting our babies go just a little bit as they tackle one of their life’s first big challenges. For them, it means learning new social skills, tackling physical challenges and adjusting to spending daily time in the classroom. This transitional period isn’t always simple, but there are ways to make it easier.

A longitudinal study which was performed on a group of kids throughout their first year of school discovered that both boys and girls adjusted better to their first grade experience when recess periods with games were provided. This is a unique period of establishing peer interactions and finding their place socially, and games with physical and social elements help kids to form the kind of social bonds that make adjusting to new circumstances easier. 

Key study/paper: Pellegrini, A. et al, (2002). “A short-term longitudinal study of children’s playground games across the first year of school: Implications for social competence and adjustment to school.” American Educational Research Journal, 39:991–1015. 


Physical Health & Ability

12) Encourages Daily Physical Activity

One of the most obvious and tremendous benefits provided by recess is the opportunity for daily physical activity. For some kids, physical games played at recess and time spent in P.E. class construe the majority of their physical activity. While this obviously isn’t ideal, it’s still a reality for some children, who really need this time to get moving outside.

An accelerometer was used to monitor the activity of over 200 children between the ages of 5 and 10 with a near-equal gender ratio. This study, which tested children from 23 schools, demonstrated that the presence of recess in the school day increased the physical activity of both boys and girls by a significant 28%.

Key study/paper: Nicola D. Ridgers (2003). “Assessing Physical Activity during recess using accelerometry”. Preventive Medicine 41(1):102-107. 


13) Reduces Nearsightedness

Difficulties with vision can make life tough in and out of the classroom for kids. When children are nearsighted, they may have no trouble picking out the finest details of objects in their hand, but the blackboard may be unreadable from only a few rows back when they’re in school. Far away objects look blurry to nearsighted kids, who may struggle with playing sports. Surprisingly, recess has been shown to have benefits in reducing the likelihood of myopia, the condition that causes nearsightedness.

571 Taiwanese students were recruited to participated in a study determining the effect of outdoor recess on myopia changes. This group was divided into two units, one that would participate in recess and another that would not. After a year, 8.41% of those who had participated in recess showed new onset of myopia, while 17.65% of those who had no recess showed new onset of the condition. The children who took recess also had a lower myopic shift, signifying continued eye health.

Key study/paper: Pei-chang Wu, Hsi-Kung Kuo et al. (2013). “Outdoor activity during recess reduces myopia onset and progression in school children”. Ophthalmology 120(5):1080-1085 


14) Lowers Risk of Obesity

It’s common sense that regular physical activity is a big part of what prevents kids from becoming obese, but providing opportunities for them to get outside for some real heart-pumping active play can be hard. This is especially true during the school year, where busy, demanding schedules make trips to the park and time in the backyard less common. For many kids, recess is a major source of physical activity, which is one of the best ways for kids to lower their risk of obesity.

One multi-level study correlated data relating to school environments and facilities, teacher’s responses, the growth of students, census-related socioeconomic info and obesity status pulled from digital health records to prove that the prevalence of obesity is significantly lower when schools offer daily recess and environments that encourage physical activity.

Key study/paper: Frederick Ka-Wing Ho, Thomas Wai-Hung Chung, (2017). “Childhood obesity and physical activity-friendly school environments”, The Journal of Pediatrics 191:110-116. 


15) Increases School-Day Step Count

The concept of counting steps isn’t just beneficial for adults. There’s a certain threshold of physical activity kids should meet in a day in order to stay healthy, and a surprising amount of kids aren’t quite getting there(in terms of steps, it’s between 12,000 and 16,000, for you’re curious). The popularity of sedentary hobbies like video games doesn’t help much, but cutting out recess can be a huge issue for kids who really need to be getting more movement out of their school day.

Socioeconomic, health, growth and teacher feedback data were all compiled into a cross-sectional study, the result of which illustrated that even small recesses can drastically increase the amount of physical activity children engage in on an average school day. A recess period lasting only 15 minutes has the potential to make up approximately 44% of their school-day step count.

Key study/paper: Rich, L. E. (2004). “Bringing more effective tools to the weight-loss table”. Monitor on Psychology, 4(1), 52–55. 


16) Gives Rise to Active Adults

Establishing healthy habits can be tough for adults, which is why it’s especially important to start when they’re kids. Teaching kids to love getting outside and active helps them to develop a lifelong love of staying fit and being physical. It makes them less likely to become sedentary adults, benefits their lifelong cardiovascular health and helps to prevent childhood obesity. Recess is a time when kids learn to love to play hard.

In a 1997 study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines to help schools and communities develop programs and activities which would promote a lifelong love of physical activity among kids. Among the stated benefits of these programs is the fact that when kids are active, they tend to become active adults. This results in a lower risk of high blood pressure and cholesterol as well as many other avoidable causes of death.

Key study/paper: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (1997) “Guidelines for school and community programs to promote lifelong physical activity among young people.” MMWR Recomm Rep. 46(RR-6):1–36 


Mental Health & Wellbeing

17) May Reduce Mental Health Issues

The conversation around mental health is one that has come into sharp focus in recent years, and for good reason. There’s been a significant increase in mental health issues, particularly among children and teens. One issue that may be exacerbating these difficulties is a lack of recess and free play. This is a period of time where kids develop important problem solving skills and engage in self discovery, and without it, their development is impeded.

This decline in mental health is illustrated in two generational studies assessing over 75,000 American high school and college students between 1938 and 2007. It was discovered that between five and eight times more students now report symptoms that would qualify them for a diagnosis of anxiety or major depression. It is theorized that a cultural shift toward extrinsic goals (think tests, hobbies and skills over unstructured personal time) may be responsible for this discrepancy.

Key study/paper: Twenge, J. et al. (2010). “Birth cohort increases in psychopathology among young Americans, 1938–2007: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of the MMPI” Clinical Psychology Review 30:145-154. 


18. Reduces Stress

Time in nature can do wonders for our kids, so it’s a good thing most of them love spending time outside. It’s a good way for people of all ages to de-stress, and in an increasingly urban world, spending time in green spaces is refreshing. When kids spend time outside during recess, especially in green spaces, it turns out they’re less likely to stay stressed out.

The effect green spaces have on kids was addressed in a unique 2014 study touching on the benefits of green schoolyards. When kids are afforded time in natural spaces, they report feeling less stressed out, more resilient and more at peace. These are the kinds of positive feelings we want our kids to associate with their time at school, and they’re part of why recess is so crucial. 

Key study/paper: Louise Chawla, Emily Stanley, (2014). “Green schoolyards as havens from stress and resources for resilience in childhood and adolescence”. Health and Place, 28:1-13. 


19. Fights Feelings of Helplessness and Lack of Self-Control

Being a kid can be tough, and more than a little bit confusing. We all face questions we don’t have answers to, but facing down existential questions about purpose and fate can feel extra stressful and scary for kids. It’s important that they understand that they’re in control of their path, and learning to solve problems, focus on their interests and develop their sense of self through unstructured play helps defeat those challenging feelings.

The results of two meta-analyses performed on young Americans revealed that their belief in outside forces controlling their lives rather than their own actions is increasing. The effects of this are largely negative, as it misplaces and externalizes responsibility for an individual’s actions and is shown to be detrimental scholastically and cause issues with stress management, depression, self control and helpless feelings.

Key study/paper: Twenge, J. et al. (2004). “It’s beyond my control: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of increasing externality in locus of control, 1960-2002.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 8:308-319. 


20. Helps Combat Depression

While periods of sadness and grief are normal, especially after a sad or disappointing event, pervasive depression shouldn’t be ignored. Kids can suffer from depression that’s as real and destructive as its adult counterpart, and medicating their symptoms can be difficult. Staying physically active is one scientifically proven depression buster that recess offers our kiddos.

In Trondheim, Norway, a group of nearly 800 six year old children had their physical activity monitored via an accelerometer. Follow up reviews took place when children reached eight and ten years of age, and any major depression symptoms were measured via semi-structured clinical interviews of children and their parents. The reviews demonstrated that a higher rate of moderate to vigorous physical activity can treat and might prevent childhood depression.

Key study/paper: Tonje Zahl, Silje Steinsbekk, Lars Wichstrøm. (2017). “Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior, and Symptoms of Major Depression in Middle Childhood”. Pediatrics, 139(2). 


Under Attack: The Current State of Recess

When we picture the school day, recess is the comma that sits happily in the middle of the sentence. It breaks up the day, letting our kids refocus their energy, stretch their legs and fulfill their natural urge to socialize with their friends. In this ideal world, they go back to class refreshed and ready to learn, yet this picture can be very different from reality.

What’s Happening to Recess?

Fully unstructured recess time is only legally mandatory in seven states. Although it’s been the unspoken standard of educators for many decades, in many cases, efforts to reduce and eliminate recess are technically legal. That’s why it’s so important that we speak up and fight back against this ill-conceived policy.

Why would schools want to reduce recess, you might wonder? In one disturbing example, no less than 23 Orange County, Florida elementary schools drastically minimized or eliminated recess time in order to maximize the time kids could spend in the classroom prepping for tests. From the parental perspective, it’s absolutely crushing to hear that these kids are having essential unstructured playtime taken away in favor of stressful Common Core test prep.

Over the past few decades, the number of schools who have eliminated recess out of fear of injuries and lawsuits rather than providing a safe area for kids to play has also increased. Additionally, taking away recess as a punishment for bad behavior is still exceptionally common. Childhood behavioral issues often stem from issues with social and emotional development or mental health, and when we consider the positive effects recess has in all these areas, the archaic nature of this punishment reveals itself.

Recess Duration and Frequency

Some schools seem to feel that by reducing recess time rather than taking it away outright, they’re doing kids a favor. Sadly for our children, that’s far from true. It’s noteworthy that this phenomenon is largely American in origin. Many countries around the world continue to prioritize and emphasize recess as an essential part of the childhood learning process. A glance at the numbers is very telling. America falls short of many other countries, providing elementary school aged children with an average of 27 minutes of daily recess. Wondering what recess looks like around the world?

  • Finland: Children are given an average of 75 minutes of free play during the school day.
  • China: Children have a morning exercise break for recess, where they are coached through stretching and running. They’re also given opportunities to “exercise” their eyes to music.
  • Japan: Children are given breaks between 10 – 15 minutes for every hour of classroom time as well as a longer free play period.

The Fight Back Has Begun: Get on Board!

If the research you’ve seen here has both shocked and inspired you, you’re not alone. As some school districts continue to fervently pursue the replacement or elimination of recess, outraged parents are speaking out. Many believe that legislation establishing the need for recess and protecting and demanding recess time for children is long overdue. When it comes to the laws governing education, the need for unstructured break times is a chasm-sized oversight, and as parents, it’s up to us to let our school districts and administrative officials know what we think of recess reductions and bans.

Whether or not your community schools are directly considering reducing or eliminating recess, it’s never too soon to advocate for its importance. School board and PTA meetings are great places to voice your knowledge on why opportunities to play are important for out kids and shouldn’t be taken away as punishment or swapped out to keep them grinding study sheets for a standardized test. If you need help finding your voice, the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play has recess advocates available in almost all of the 50 states who can speak eloquently on the science-proven benefits of recess.

The health and happiness of our children are our ultimate goals as parents. If we know that recess has the capacity to powerfully change their educational life for the better but we refuse to advocate for it, we are doing a tremendous disservice to our kids. They need to play, and reducing or eliminating recess for any reason – behavioral, academic or otherwise – is detrimental to our kids. We hope that you’ll join us in continuing to speak out about the benefits of this crucial aspect of our children’s academic lives.

Neve Spicer
Written by Neve Spicer Updated on October 11th, 2022
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