Why All Kids Need Recess

By , Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt, Ph.D
Do you remember elementary school recess?  Can you conjure up vivid images of your play time?

I think I jump-roped around the globe over the course of my elementary school  recess hours.  The traditional, two-people-hold-one-jump rope game was my forte.  I can even hear the song in my head: "Strawberry shortcake, cream on top, tell me the name of your sweetheart..."  The group then sang out a letter of the alphabet with each jump.  Hopefully, if the boy you "liked" started with an S or T or W, you would be able to jump long enough to land on the right letter. 

As children, we looked forward to running free during that period of time during the day.  No hall pass.  No permissions needed.  Little teacher interference.  Fresh air.  Pure and simple play.  That was the 1970s and 1980s for me.  Over the course of the past two decades, however, fewer children have been able to experience the freedoms of recess.   

Perhaps the biggest contributor to the decrease in recess for children has been increased academic expectations.  In a nutshell, in came academic standards and out went recess.  It made sense to many: If there are higher demands academically and more accountability of schools, teachers, and children, then recess (the perceived "perk") must go. 
The problem: Children need recess!   
A recent report issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics received a lot of attention.  The report, supported by research, communicated what many parents and teachers (and even children) already know about the importance of recess.  Aside from giving kids a chance to be active, which is what we usually associate with recess, recess is associated with more attention and productivity during learning times and better development of social-emotional skills such as negotiation and cooperation and sharing.

The news confirms earlier reports. The AAP said five years earlier that free and unstructured play contributes to health and cognitive development, and to social and emotional development (helps kids manage stress and increases resiliency).  Yet, the National Center for Education Statistics in 2005 reported that approximately 15% of children have no recess and of the other 85%, some have as little as 15 minutes or less.   In 2006, School Health Policies and Programs Study reported that 11% of states require recess in elementary schools and 57% of school districts require it.  A silver lining perhaps: It was also reported that 79% of elementary schools reported that they actually do provide recess. 

But here's more worrisome news: Gallup in 2009 stated that two-thirds of principals reported taking away recess as a punishment. It is often those who have recess taken away who most need that time to better concentrate in school, and there is a significant difference in access to recess economically and racially.  According to the Teachers College Record report:
  • 44% of children living below the poverty line do not have recess compared with 17% of others
  • 39% of African-American children don't have recess compared with about 15% of Caucasian children
  • 25% of kids who score below average on standardized tests do not have recess compared with 15% of those above average. 
We are a confused nation.  We so want our children to do well, but often policymakers do not know how to make that happen.  Policies go into place, only to be replaced by others.  Perhaps we can benefit by going back to the basics and recognize that kids need a chance to be kids.  Then, we can build from there.  Some kids are in school more hours per week than their parents are at work.  Add homework to that—how many of us want to work at work and then when we get home from work?  Kids and adults need a break.  Evidence shows recess need not be an hour or even a half hour of recess, but children need time to free their minds and bodies from the confines of the classroom.

What can you do?  Advocate!  Have a voice!  Be educated!  Do you know if your child has recess?  If so, how long is it?  Does your child’s teacher take away recess time for children to finish work or as a punishment?  If you do not know the answers, find out.  Something so simple can go a long way in helping children succeed.  Together, we can bring recess back!


Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt is Chairperson of the Department of Psychology at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on social and emotional development in childhood and adolescence. She has published research on parent-child attachment, friendship, peer relations, bullying, and mentoring. She has also done consulting work with schools as part of their bullying prevention and intervention programs. Michelle recently published the book Friendships in Childhood and Adolescence (Guilford Press), which explores the significance of friendship from toddlerhood through adolescence. The book examines factors that contribute to positive friendships, how positive friendships influence children’s lives, and interventions for those who have friendship difficulties. Michelle is the mother of a 7-year-old son, William, and a 2-year-old bulldog named Eve. She enjoys yoga, kayaking, writing, and cooking.

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BLOND1E 6/6/2021
I wish companies required recess for adults!! It's not just kids that can benefit. :) Report
NASFKAB 10/17/2020
Very true Report
ERIN_POSCH 9/25/2020
thanks for sharing Report
GRALAN 9/20/2020
actually all human beings need a recess period, even a couple really. It isn't merely humorous to consider Monty Python's regular spiel "and now for something completely different". Report
Kids need to get their wiggles out - my sister has been a recess aid for 4 years now and she's a saint! Report
Absolutely. I learned last year that my son's teachers took it upon themselves to take away his recess for months without my permission or notifying myself or the principal to provide him with additional instruction, instead of keeping him after school like they did with other kids that needed help. When they were told by me that it was unacceptable and they either needed to send work home with him for me to assist or keep him after school, they opted for sending it home because goodness forbid them from giving him the instruction they are being paid to do. Report
Have thought for a long time that recess needs to be brought back. Wonder if the rise in ADD and ADHD has something to do with kids not moving? Report
I agree, the children need recess! Report
I agree. Report
I agree with this article. After sitting so long in a classroom, their bodies need to move. Report
Yes! Report
Cannot imagine school these days, let alone school without recess. Report
Without phones Report
Thanks for confirming an opinion Report
I agree. Kids do need exercise during the day Report
YES!!! So important! Report
I've always believed kids needed recess and was surprised the first time I heard that some schools stopped doing. Thats why I'm glad my daughters school still does it. Report
What bugs me is I know of some people who work for the school board here and the Teachers DO NOT do supervision only the support staff do it. Which is wrong from several angles not to mention the certified staff are really legally responsible for the students. Not to mention they are PAID for their entire day including ALL breaks. Report
I did my masters thesis on this 15 years ago, we know this but yet we still have public schools that require the students to sit all day long Report
Although my home-school child does not have "recess" in the conventional sense, I find that she does a lot better when we go out and ride bikes, play tennis, ride on her scooter with her friends, swim... whatever the day brings. I hate computer games... although we will play Adventures or Disney on the XBox... I think all kids need to get out of the house more, and away from the tv and video games. Report
As a preschool teacher, I can agree with this 100%. My kids need to get outside to play everyday. They are much more focused when we do sit down to work if they have time to run free. They also get along better with their peers when they have more free time to interact with them. I can even tell the difference when we have to have indoor recess because they are much more fidgety and not as focused during indoor activities. We've been stuck inside for almost three months now because of the weather and they're practically bouncing off the walls and can hardly wait until we can go outside again. Report
This is definitely a difficult subject for teachers as well. I teach third grade and try to "take away" recess as little as possible. When my students do miss recess it is never a surprise. I do keep my students inside if they do not complete homework, they know this will happen. However if it is because a child does not have a supportive home-life, I find a way to help the child complete the homework in school without him/her missing recess. Report
Recess ls good for children so that they can destress and recharge they energy to constructive thinking. Report
Absolutely... daily recess, outdoors whenever possible, and/or structured play - is important for all kids! Report
I hated PE in school and was thrilled when my kids got to high school and could opt-out. They went to JUDO classes and soccer after school so they got plenty of exercise. Report
Here's to recess and unstructured time for kids!! We all need this and, if you look around at the amount of 'stress related illness' in our adult world, you can see how important taking time out is. The caveat I would say is really around making sure the necessary supports are in place to help kids work through the bullying and clique behaviour that can often occur and has been cited here as the reason to cut this time from children's schedules. These are important learning times and need to be capitalized on. I know that recess often means breaks for teachers (much needed I might add) but providing minimal outdoor staffing discounts the learning that can happen oin the playground with good modelling and support unless the school budgets for adequate numbers of support staff to play this role.
While many might argue that academics outweigh playground time, I would refute that, without a sense of energy and well being, kids can't take in the academics no matter the teaching strategy. Let's help support balanced kids whose learning on and off the playground is equally important! Report
Totally agree recess, as well as phys ed, are important to kids. In addition to the health benefits, what about just learning how to entertain themselves, make their own fun so they're not "bored" all the time. Report
Recess was when everyone gathered into little cliques and excluded some kids. I was part of a group, but I couldn't help feeling bad about kids who were left out, and even my little group left them out. Recess wasn't really fun. Kids were so mean. Report
I will never forget my daughter's first grade teacher making her "stand up against the wall" during recess as a punishment for forgetting to bring a book to class. Not only was the teacher disrupting her well-earned free time, but using recess as a chance to expose her to public humiliation. Thankfully we moved mid-year and her next teacher was much more tuned into kids' needs and appropriate discipline measure when necessary. My daughter is now a freshman in high school and still remembers that incident. Unfortunately she does not like to be active which is mostly due to her temperament and interests, but I wonder if in some small part the joys of recess and being active were somewhat soured in her mind by that incident. Report
My kids have recess but it there is misbehavior the teacher requires that they walk around the play area. I like this because they do get some activity. Report
My kids have and love recess. I don't know if it's required or not, but I was very happy to hear my daughter tell me that when the weather is bad they do recess in their classroom. I asked her what that was like & she said they do a little dancing as a class and then they're free to play on their own for a while. My son was complaining that recess isn't long enough, but he would play at recess all day if you let him! :) I don't know how long they get, but I'm glad they do have recess daily.

I was shocked that some schools don't do recess. I had no idea. What a shame. It really makes me appreciate my kids' school! Report
There should always be a recess. Kids need that time to regroup just like adults need time while working. All schools should have recess Report
My recess days were back in the 60's - and I still have great memories of them. Like the blog author, jump-roping was a favorite - and I've tried it in my later years - what a great aerobic exercise and calorie burner. No wonder there weren't the "little chubbies" then that there are now! Playing softball, cheerleading, dodge ball, kickball, hopscotch, Lemonade, Red Rover, just walking and talking with a friend... wow the memory film just keep rolling! Who says that the "gold old days" weren't really all that good? Oh yes they were. And then going back into the classroom where the emphasis of the teaching was on the three R's, after being outside in the fresh air and "getting the blood circulating" during an active recess time, was an exciting time as well. There's a lot to be learned from the lessons of the past - if only modern educators would be willing to listen!! (Oh, I forgot the see-saws and cherry bumps!!) Report
Recess is not allowed to be taken away at my school. It's counted as part of their PE time (actual PE classes are 30 min 4 days a week). When I kid does something they're not supposed to we redirect them to another area of the playground. So it they're misusing equipment they can go the track or blacktop to play kickball, basketball, or 4 square. If they're causing fights in a game of kickball, no more kickball. Very rarely do things happen that require kids to have an actual time out where they sit on the wall for 5 min. We still let kids play tag at my school, though only one finger touch, at my son's school (same district) tag is not allowed nor are any of the chase games we played as kids. Report
Active play develops brains. Play in general develops brains. Lawmakers have no idea what they are doing! I am an ECE specialist and our brains need to be outside! It is pretty sad when a kid in my class that is 3 years old has no idea how to play with blocks but can run an iPad better than most adults! Active play is the answer. Report
I am a teacher in Canada. More and more, the high pressures put on the schools to perform, are causing recess to be taken away, for whatever reason. Here, the first morning recess is included in instructional time, giving teachers leeway to keep kids back for extra help. We don't have the bodies to give kids late or different recess times. The world moves so fast now, that we are told it's a good idea to train kids this way from the very beginning. It's the modern fast paced way. I am older, and old fashioned, so I wish we all had less pressure. The definition of childhood has changed for sure, and not just because recess is becoming obsolete ! Report
As a teacher, I totally agree with the fact that ALL kids need recess, and that the ones that need it the most get it the least. Increasing pressure from the state has taken the fun out of school for children and teachers alike. I love my job, but in the 10 years I've been teaching it has become increasingly more stressful. I wish the people that make the policies were with the kids day in and day out, so that they could see the effects of their decisions. Report
The educational system in place in most states is abysmal. Red tape has replaced teaching and it's more a babysitting venue than opportunity to educate and expand the mental, social and creative horizons of children than it was in the past. We should look to other successful nations as we have, frankly, lost our way. Report
I say kids need more creative fun. Try HeadBodyFeet. A piece of paper is folded into thirds and one player draws a head on the first section. The paper is then turned over and the next player draws the body on the next section without seeing the head. Same for the feet, and then the paper is unfolded to reveal how it all fits together. You can play online now too for free at headbodyfeet.com. Report
My son has ADHD among other mental issues. He always needs to do two to three things at once. He is in High School now but when he was younger the teachers realized that he behaved better because he had something to look forward to nice he accomplished all his work. It was up to him when he would go out. In other words, if he did his work at a slower pace due to a bad day then he went out latter that was originally scheduled. If anyone took that recess away due to other behavior issues he wouldn't be productive for the rest of today. I'm glad that our school system realizes the impotence of learning in relations to productivity in students. Nice article. Report
Such a sad article. I can't imagine schools without recess. As an educator for the past 25 years, I am thankful that recess here in British Columbia and across Canada has not been threatened. This is a time for play, exercise, socialization and imagination. Report
Teachers need recess too ! Report
In our school system, recess is mandatory. It teaches the kids to be active, to socialize, to be independent. It's not normal to have kids sit still all day. Active bodies house active brains. (also, when its winter, standing around isn't much fun. At least when you run around and build snowmen/forts/monsters, you stay warm.) Report
In our school system, recess is mandatory. It teaches the kids to be active, to socialize, to be independent. It's not normal to have kids sit still all day. Active bodies house active brains. (also, when its winter, standing around isn't much fun. At least when you run around and build snowmen/forts/monsters, you stay warm.) Report
I cannot agree with you more! It is disconcerting and disappointing that many of our educational policies are not in line with so much data to support this position. Don't even get me started (I am a teacher).... Homework policies need to be changed too in my opinion in order to facilitate the more active play that children need to be smart! Homework isn't what makes kids smarter. It's exploring, being curious, and engaging in interesting activities and PLAYING!!!! Well said. Thanks for your article. Report
The demise of recess has been a pet peeve for me for quite some time. I am delighted that parents and educators are beginnging to realize this. Just as adults sitting at a desk for 8 or more hours 5 days per week need to get up and move occassionally, kids need to play during the school day for so many reasons and all of them excellent reasons! Report
I wish so badly that my students (who are middle schoolers) still got recess. Today, I took the kids in my after school program outside to fly kites, and they got so excited you'd think I'd told them it was raining gold and candy. They admitted to being so hyper that they couldn't contain themselves -- because when you're 11, sitting still in class for 7 hours is just not normal! Report
I am a teacher and I think the importance of recess, fresh air and even if students aren't overly active, the chance to socialize and relax cannot be under estimated! Those critical early childhood years (pre K-5) children 'use' play as a means of socialization and intellectual growth and for older pupils recess should exist so they have a time to chill out and socialize too (as if we all didn't do it in study hall anyway! :P) One thing I noticed between my life as a student/child in the US vs my formal teacher training years in Australia was that in at my schools in Australia even older students got a recess and they were far better behaved than I ever was in high school...coincidence I think not, we need to get our priorities straight. Report
Yay!! Recess and play!!! I loved my time with my friends jumping rope, playing square ball and tether ball. We imagined ourselves as ponies and spun around the bars and ran and jump and just had fun!! The time of life of being a child seems so short now but oh the memories and many of just the simple things of recess and friends and fun!! Glad to read this documentation of how valuable what was so much fun really was!!! Report