Unstructured Recess in Schools Leads to Better Students
Author: Chad Kennedy, Landscape Architect, ASLA
If you are anything like me, you have many memories of and often reflect back on childhood events. Many of my fondest, and most embarrassing, moments occurred in the schoolyard and live in my mind as testaments to the lessons I have learned. Confrontations with bullies, always being the last one on the team chosen, trips to the principal's office, learning to pretend not to like girls, successful battles as king of the hill and mending scratches and bruises were all part of my school recess experience, and remain priceless gems in my educational history book. I physically cringe when I hear teachers and school officials try to justify, in the name of education, the cancellation of recess altogether or the institution of overly structured recess breaks. I watch with interest as research continues to support an opposite hypothesis, that recess breaks during the school day improve children's education. Recess breaks provided throughout the school day are consistently shown to be effective at enhancing learning in school age children's cognitive functioning, academic understanding, social and emotional health and physical strength.
Cognitive and Academic: Children in the United States spend between 170 and 180 days and 900 to 1,000 hours in an educational environment.2 These hours are filled with sustained periods of cognitive work and structured instruction. As instructional hours continue and repetitive or focus demanding tasks build-up, children can begin to experience cognitive interference, which in turn inhibits optimal learning conditions. Studies have shown that children can break through this interference and facilitate maximum learning, when they participate in breaks of fundamentally different and unstructured activities.5 To this end, unstructured recess can and should be a primary source for activities. A study completed in 2009 actually showed that unstructured recess breaks of fifteen minutes or greater (≥15) was associated with better behavior during classroom instruction.1 Other studies have also shown that children are more productive and attentive after recess breaks.4 This however does not mean that physical education classes or other structured physical activities should replace recess. There is a fundamental difference between structured physical activity and unstructured play that allows children to explore, rest, imagine, think, dramatize and socialize in their own way and at their own pace.
Social and Emotional: Social interactions on the schoolyard are particularly important to overall cognitive health and adjustment to the rigors of school life. During social play children enact scenarios that require some children to relinquish powers and authorities while allowing others to be the superhero or valiant knight. These roles change hands and children learn to enact different roles becoming more flexible in order to sustain peer interaction.5 Experiences on the playground also foster fundamental life-long skills such as communication skills, negotiation tactics, personal sacrifice, critical thinking, self-mastery, disappointment and teamwork.4 Further, the lessons learned through social interaction with peers on the schoolyard including "perspective taking and using explicit language" as well as friendship building are closely related to cognitive and academic performance and ability to handle the stresses of the educational environment.5 One study published in 2013 found that playground peer interaction was a positive indicator of academic achievement and that it could significantly predict the success of a student. Interestingly, adult-directed structured play activities had the opposite effect.5
Physical: Typical recess breaks also include a level of physical exercise not found in the classroom. Most of the school day is spent in sedentary activity focused on exercising the mind, not the body. Though not all children will exploit recess breaks for vigorous physical activity (some children will choose respite or rest from stimulation), all children will be involved in some movement, practice of gross motor skills, free choice activity and exposure to the outdoor environment where physical activity is likely to occur. 4 Providing elements that facilitate active play in the school yard such as foursquare grids, tetherball, basketball hoops, grassy areas and play structures should be encouraged5 as a way to provide diverse opportunities for children to meet the sixty minutes per day of moderate activity prescribed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
It is clear and unmistakable, through all the available research, that children perform better, are more socially adept, and more physically healthy when unstructured play is incorporated into school curriculum. However, when discussing the topic of recess and breaks during children's academic pursuits, there are still many avenues of research left to explore. Issues such as bullying in the schoolyard, social inclusion, childhood obesity, sensory integration, and inclusion of natural elements are all very real and important topics needing attention. As a start, let's let the children play!