When school is in session, parents and teachers often want children to accomplish as much as they can. But research has shown that we should not forget the value of play and relaxation. This point of view was strongly supported by a policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). It was published early in 2013.
The Benefits of Free, Unstructured Play Time
A 2009 study from a group of researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York showed that, compared to those who have minimal or no recess time, elementary school children who have free time during the day receive higher ratings from teachers on their classroom behavior. The study (like the policy statement) was published in the journal Pediatrics.
It makes sense for children to have a break in the school day that is given over to free, unstructured, active play — the definition of recess.
Prior research has shown that children are less fidgety and more attentive after recess. In 2007, Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, a pediatrician at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote about the benefits of play on behalf of the AAP. He described play as essential for healthy brain development. In addition to promoting intelligence, it helps develop creativity, imagination and resilience.
Back to top
The Appalling State of Recess
The power of this latest study comes from its size and breadth. The authors used data from a large survey of more than 15,000 children (8- or 9-year olds) that was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. Most of the children were third graders. They came from all major ethnic groups and every geographical area in the United States. The study included an equal number of boys and girls who attended both public and private schools. Parents ranged in educational background from those who had not finished high school to those who had earned a graduate degree. All socioeconomic levels were represented, as well as urban and rural communities.
One of the study's most surprising findings was the appalling state of recess in the United States.
- Three in ten children had either no recess or only enjoyed a minimal break during the day (less than 15 minutes).
- Black or Hispanic children were more likely to be deprived of recess, as were children who came from lower income families, had parents with less education, or were living in larger cities and in the South.
The authors also explained that children today have less free play or unstructured time in school than they did in the 1960s or 1970s. They think this change is a response to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. To meet the demands of the law, which requires schools to improve test scores in reading and math, schools have cut back on recess, arts programs and physical education.
Back to top
Leaving Children Behind
The loss of unstructured time for students may not be achieving its aims. Students who are kept in classrooms all day without a break are likely to be less attentive and may also learn less efficiently.
Moreover, the negative consequences of shrinking recess time are not limited to intellectual or emotional development. The rate of obesity in children has tripled over the last few decades. On its own, recess time can't reverse this trend, but it can contribute to promoting an active lifestyle.
Back to top
Finding the Balance
The study did not provide evidence for how much recess is best. Researchers working in this area recognize that children are under many competitive pressures in school.
As a group, they advocate finding a balance between free time and structured, formal teaching. More research is needed to determine what a reasonable balance should be.
But the AAP recommends that play, particularly active and creative play (as opposed to sitting in front of a television or computer screen) will help children be more successful. It may even help them learn a few of the social skills they'll need to meet the challenges ahead of them.
Back to top
Michael Craig Miller, M.D. is editor-in-chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Miller has an active clinical practice and has been on staff at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for more than 25 years.