Why Recess Is Essential to Child Development


Some of our best memories of grade school always start with that recess bell ringing. That joyful sound was letting our little minds know it was time to go outside and play. Unfortunately, in recent years, schools have waved goodbye to recess in favor of tightly packed academic schedules even at an elementary school level.

While we can’t argue with the fact that education is an important part of a child’s life, recess is also an essential part of childhood development. Why is recess so important?

Childhood Obesity Is on the Rise

Childhood obesity is a growing problem in the United States, if you’ll excuse the pun. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of children ages 6-11 who are considered obese more than doubled from 1980 to 2012, from 7 percent to 18 percent. In children ages 12-19, that rate has gone from 5 percent in 1980 to an astonishing 21 percent in 2012.

While everyone knows exercise is an important part of a healthy life, there are a number of studies that have been completed recently that confirm that link. One study found that an hour of activity reduced students’ BMI scores by 0.5.

Everyone Feels Better After a Break

Going on a break when you’re at work leaves you feeling a little more refreshed and ready to get back to your job, and it does the same thing for kids when they’re at school. Let’s face it – school is hard work! Research dating as far back as the 1800s has shown that kids and adults alike learn better after they’ve had a chance to take a break and play a little.

Children also need some unstructured time, like recess, during which they can be themselves and make their own decisions. It encourages the development of leadership and negotiation skills, among many other valuable abilities. It’s a chance to let them take charge of their little sliver of the world, which they don’t get to do often.

iStock_children playing on playground (2)

Exercise Reduces Stress

School can be a very stressful environment. Starting from a very young age, there is the pressure to perform at a certain level. This becomes even more apparent once standardized tests come into the picture, with children being introduced to the idea as young as kindergarten and having their advancement contingent on a passing grade as young as third grade.

A group of Finnish researchers found that exercise reduces stress in children. They monitored the amount of the hormone cortisol – often called the stress hormone – in their bodies. Physically active children were found to have lower levels of cortisol in their bodies, leading to lower overall stress levels.

Practicing for Social Skills

In addition to learning, school is also a great place for students to practice their social skills. Unfortunately, a strictly regimented academic schedule that has no room for recess makes it harder for kids to find time to practice. No one wants to get in trouble for practicing their social skills in the middle of a math lesson, after all.

The American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy recommendation in 2013 reiterating the critical role that recess has in the social and emotional development of students. It’s an open environment where they are in control, rather than a classroom setting where the teacher is in control and students are most often required to sit quietly.

No More Fidgeting

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, is the most commonly diagnosed mental illness in children – between 5 and 11 percent of American children have been diagnosed with the illness. It is often marked by an inability to focus, impulsive behavior and of course, hyperactivity. That fidgety behavior can be disruptive to other students. Studies have found that recess and other forms of physical activity have a positive impact on classroom behavior for students diagnosed with ADHD.

This isn’t exclusive to students with ADHD, either. Kids are kids, and they are prone to fidgeting when they get bored or have a lot of extra energy bottled up in their tiny bodies. Remaining active helps kids direct that energy into something productive rather than trying to keep it contained during classroom activities.

As parents ourselves, it’s infuriating to see our kids coming home as raging balls of unchecked energy because they have no outlet during the day. A mere five minutes of outside play for kindergartners is not enough, from this writer’s own personal experience. Recess is an essential part of our kids’ school day, not only because they need an outlet for all that inexhaustible energy, but because it also promotes social skills, cooperation and other benefits they just won’t get in the classroom.

While recess is starting to make a comeback, there are still too many schools in too many cities that have eliminated this essential part of childhood. While academics are important, play is just as important and we need to work as hard as is needed to give this back to our kids.

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Jennifer Landis is a writer, blogger, foodie, yogi, runner, and mama. She loves drinking tea, Doctor Who, and dark chocolate. You can find more from Jennifer at her blog, Mindfulness Mama, or on Twitter @JenniferELandis.

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