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Importance of Recess

Pediatric researchers say unstructured play can help a child’s cognitive, physical, emotional and social development.

Can climbing on monkey bars help a child’s cognitive development? Can a game of tag boost preschooler’s social skills? The nation’s top pediatricians say “yes” and some local educators agree.

“Recess and unstructured play provide children with opportunities to explore, problem-solve and learn in ways that enhance their socio-emotional, physical and cognitive development.”

— Professor Julie K. Kidd, George Mason University

A policy statement released earlier this month by the American Academy of Pediatrics said recess, when provided in a safe environment and under supervision, provides children with cognitive, physical, emotional and social benefits. Additionally, the AAP recommended that unstructured play be used in conjunction with physical education in schools.

“Recess and unstructured play provide children with opportunities to explore, problem-solve and learn in ways that enhance their socio-emotional, physical and cognitive development,” said Julie K. Kidd, associate professor and early childhood education academic program coordinator at George Mason University in Fairfax. “The physical and mental break from academic activities enables children to return to their studies more focused and ready to learn.”

SOME LOCAL SCHOOLS agree that recess is an important part of a student’s day. “In addition to physical education classes, our students enjoy unstructured recess every day,” said Dick Ewing, head of school at the Norwood School in Potomac, Md. “Of course, there are the health benefits of the physical activity, and teachers will tell you that children are more focused in the classroom after recess, but there are also several social-emotional benefits. Children learn important life skills during recess. They learn how to effectively communicate, collaborate, cooperate and problem solve during various playground games. Creativity also comes into play as children make up their own games.”

Lizabeth Borra, school counselor at Potomac Elementary School in Potomac, added: “This unstructured time gives children the opportunity to develop lifelong skills such as conflict resolution, communication, creativity, and negotiation.”

Joan Holden, head of school for St. Stephen's & St. Agnes School in Alexandria, developed play areas known as “Tinkering Spaces” on campus, “dedicated spots where students work together with educational games, building tools and puzzles, where there are no assessments or evaluations, just a relaxing, fun atmosphere that brings out teamwork, creativity, invention and problem-solving,” said Holden. “I thought it would be great to have age-appropriate spaces on each campus where students could tinker in a very informal way, with no instructions. The only ground rule is that you can't destroy what someone else has started. You can either build on it or start your own project.”

American Academy of Pediatrics researchers and local educators concluded that recess and free play activities are a critical part of development and social interaction that students may not get inside a classroom. “Time outside in an unstructured environment among peers provides an important avenue for the development of their creative, social and moral development,” said Colin Gleason, head of the Lower School at The Heights School in Potomac.

Gleason says unstructured play provides a much-needed outlet for some children. “At this age, children, and especially boys, overflow with physical energy,” he said. “They are wired … to explore and learn about the world around them in an active way, using all of their senses. Also, by organizing play with their peers in this environment, they learn the natural laws of social interaction. They learn that it pays off to be kind towards others, to work together to make a game run smoothly [and] to make rules that are fair.”

American Academy of Pediatrics researchers also recommended that recess not be withheld from children as punishment. Shannon Melideo, chair of the education department and an associate professor at the School of Education and Human Services at Marymount University in Arlington, agrees: “Too often the children who are denied recess as a punishment are the children who need recess most.”

Some local educators say that recess gives children an opportunity to learn how to manage their free time. “Current research in brain development highlights the connections between physical activity, attention and memory,” said Dresden Koons, head of Lower School at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac. “We … [believe] that what happens outside the classroom benefits what goes on inside it, and vice versa. Most of all, we want our students to take appropriate risks in a safe environment and to experience repeated successes on the playground that will translate into their success as learners and as human beings.”

THE AAP STATEMENT stresses that recess should complement, not replace physical education classes, even for schools with limited outdoor space, and Reston-based National Association for Sport and Physical Education spokeswoman Paula Keyes Kun agreed. She said, “All children need a minimum of 60 minutes of physical activity every day. Regular daily recess should be a part of every school day. It provides children with discretionary time to be active, helps them develop healthy bodies and enjoy movement.”

She added that NAPSE is calling on schools across the country to find creative ways of increasing their students’ physical activity levels before, during and after school.