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Student Success

Recess is Best: The Social, Physical, and Emotional Benefits of Unstructured Play

November 16th, 2018

Group Of Young Children Running Towards Camera In ParkThe daily routine of a recess break has been a core component of the academic classroom for generations. Travel back in time a century, and you would encounter teachers who allowed their students to run and play outside as a way to give them a physical and mental break from academic lessons and let them release pent-up energy. Over the years, however, school districts that are feeling the pressure to elevate student performance by leveraging every minute for academic instruction have begun to eliminate this valuable school day routine. Now, research is showing that the role of recess has significant benefits beyond merely allowing energy-filled kids to tire themselves out physically so they can refocus in the classroom. Children that are allowed recess enjoy many social, physical and emotional benefits — plus it can even help children who have ADHD.

Recess Improves Student Focus

One school system in Texas says that it has identified an opportunity to improve outcomes amongst all students. The solution? Just let them run.

Eagle Mountain Elementary school recently tripled its students’ allotted recess time from 20 minutes to an hour that is broken up into four 15-minute breaks. The results, administrators say, have been transformative, with their kindergarteners now capable of sitting quietly through instruction — every kindergarten teacher’s ideal classroom scenario. The teachers at Eagle Mountain Elementary also now describe their students as less fidgety, less distracted, more engaged, and learning to make and hold eye contact.

Eagle Mountain Elementary is not the only school taking this innovative approach to improving student focus and academic performance through an increased allowance of unstructured play time. Despite a nationwide downward trend in allotted recess minutes, there are schools in California, Oklahoma, and Texas that are also testing a classroom model in which teachers give students more free time for physical activity.

The Health Benefits of Recess

Teachers are not the only childhood development experts weighing in on the value of recess for children and adolescents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines recess as “regularly scheduled periods within the elementary school day for unstructured physical activity and play.” CDC studies support teachers’ anecdotal feedback that recess provides children and adolescents with an essential break from rigorous cognitive tasks and enables critical socialization opportunities. Studies have further found that post-recess, students are more attentive and perform better in the classroom.

Recess Helps Students with ADHD

Researchers, teachers, and administrators are realizing that recess can significantly impact the academic performance of students struggling with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

According to CHADD, the national resource on ADHD, The 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) found that 6.1 million children (9.4 percent) have been diagnosed with ADHD, a percentage that includes 2.4 percent of children ages two through five, 9.6 percent of children ages six through 11, and 13.6 percent of adolescents ages 12 through 17. ADHD is a chronic neurodevelopmental disorder categorized by such symptoms as:

  • An inability to pay close attention to details.
  • Difficulty sustaining attention.
  • Seemingly not listening.
  • Difficulty following instructions and staying organized.
  • Avoiding tasks that require sustained mental effort.
  • Being easily distracted or forgetful.
  • Frequently fidgeting/extreme restlessness.
  • An inability to sit still.
  • Difficulty engaging in quiet activities.
  • Talking excessively.
  • An inability to wait or take turns/frequently interrupting others.

Such restless, distracted, and interruptive behavior among 9.4 percent of a classroom can pose significant challenges for teachers already tasked with keeping control of large groups of students while enabling them to meet high academic standards.

Historically, treatment plans for students with ADHD include special education programs, psychological intervention, and medicine. Medications used to treat ADHD include a class of drugs known as psychostimulants and include brand name drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin that are designed to help children focus their thoughts and ignore distractions.

In an era where many people worry that our nation is becoming over-dependent upon the pharmaceutical industry, and parents are resisting recommendations to medicate their children, parents and teachers are desperately searching for alternative, non-medicated approaches to helping students with ADHD remain focused in the classroom.

Exercise, or recess is a proven strategy for reducing the symptoms of ADHD in children. A recent study of 202 at risk for ADHD students between the ages of 4 and 9, published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, found that “children with and without ADHD showed across-the-board improvement after exercising — but the kids with ADHD took significantly greater strides. The biggest jumps were seen in the children’s ability to focus and in their moods, both in school and at home. Parents also reported less oppositional behavior on the days their children exercised.”1

Recess Combats Childhood Obesity

Not only does recess help students both with and without ADHD to better focus throughout the school day, many argue it offers a vital opportunity for young people to obtain physical activity, something that may help mitigate the rise in childhood obesity. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), recess provides students with time to participate in activities of their choosing and practice movement and motor skills that help counterbalance sedentary time both at home and in the classroom. Experts say that recess also allows students to achieve the AAP’s recommended 60-minutes of moderate to vigorous daily activity that is crucial for maintaining a healthy weight.

How to Redefine Recess in Your District

If your school district does not currently maintain a defined policy regarding required recess time in its schools, it may be time to formalize regulations for the betterment of your students physically, socially, and academically. Consider testing anywhere from 10-minutes to an hour of allotted free time in your classrooms per day. Talk to parents, teachers, and students and monitor students’ performance and attentiveness in the classroom to determine if the additional unstructured free time provides the hoped-for benefits.

Understand that by adding time for recess to your school day, you will be eliminating minutes of instruction time. However, you may find that when you give students the opportunity they need to release energy and socialize with their peers, teachers can maximize the remaining hours of their day and benefit from more attentive students, and be better able to accomplish their learning objectives while enjoying fewer interruptions and student distractions.

1. Frye, D. (2017, April 05). Why Recess Is Non-Negotiable for ADHD Kids. Retrieved November 16, 2018, from

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