Power of Play


Researchers continue to debate a subject that kids have agreed upon for ages: How important is recess?

Skip science or social studies, and most kids would hardly notice. But scrap recess? Prepare for a revolution. The prevailing opinion is beginning to take the kids’ side. Last summer, the National Network of Public Health Institutes collaborated with Health Resources In Action and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the issue. The resulting “Keep Recess In Schools” report recommends at least 20 minutes of daily recess for all students kindergarten through 12th grade.

Several states have responded by requiring a minimum amount of recess per day for elementary school students, reversing a trend in the opposite direction. The NNPHI report says up to 40 percent of U.S. school districts have reduced or eliminated recess in favor of more time for academics since the mid-2000s, largely in response to an increased emphasis on standardized testing as a metric for student achievement.

Recess2The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children get 60 minutes of “moderate to vigorous activity” per day — a difficult threshold to meet without recess during the school day.

“Recess is a necessary break in the day for optimizing a child’s social, emotional, physical and cognitive development,” the AAP said in a 2013 policy statement. “In essence, recess should be considered a child’s personal time, and it should not be withheld for academic or punitive reasons.”

Dr. Kathleen Corley, principal at Red Cedar Elementary School, is a staunch proponent of recess. Her school has a 20-minute recess block for each class, and teachers can add a second recess period during the day if they are able to fit it into their schedule while still meeting all mandated S.C. Department of Education requirements.

“We are always subject to the research pendulum,” Corley said. “We are currently in a ‘more-is-more’ zone. Still, no more time from the state has been suggested, where we might find that time by having another requirement relaxed. So we continue to do what we believe is best for our students.”

At Sea Pines Montessori Academy, students ranging from 12 months old to eighth grade receive at least 30 minutes of recess per day, and students who stay for after-school care have an additional recess period.

“Our commitment to the child’s gross motor development, creativity and free play has not changed,” head of school Melinda Cotter said. “If anything, we’ve added more activities as studies continue to show that children need recess in order to express themselves, positively interact with peers, experience conflict resolution, try new things, and exercise.”  

Recess at Sea Pines Montessori can go beyond time on the playground to include walks through the Sea Pines Forest Preserve or on the beach, water activities, or playing basketball, Cotter said.

Each of those activities incorporates different aspects of what makes recess a critical element of the school day, advocates say.

“Recess is important for many reasons,” Corley said. “Unstructured play, figuring out what game to play, if any, what the rules are going to be, whose turn is when — all of those are people skills. Having adults supervise but not commandeer the game is a good way to do that for child development reasons, if at all possible. Students skipping and hopping and playing out fantasies is an equally important use of their time.”


The National Network of Public Health Institutes (NNPHI) collaborated with Health Resources In Action and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to develop the “Keep Recess In Schools” data brief in July 2017. Among the findings highlighted in the brief are a number of examples of how recess improves student outcomes.

Social & emotional outcomes:

  • Improved ability to share and negotiate
  • Better social interactions
  • Increased school connectedness
  • Improved school climate

Academic achievement outcomes:

  • Better grades and test scores
  • Better classroom behavior
  • Better school attendance
  • Improved memory, attention, and concentration