Why Reducing Recess Can Have Unexpected Consequences on Student Success

Recess is vital to student success.

While true college readiness requires more than intelligence or a strong transcript, it’s understandable that many schools focus on academics in an effort to ensure that students perform well on standardized tests and earn high grades.

In this effort to boost scores and strengthen transcripts, sometimes policies are driven by demands that aren’t supported by data and research. Take play.

Some 40 percent of schools have reduced or entirely eliminated recess, according to a national Gallup survey of principals. Yet removing those minutes of unstructured free time actually has a negative impact on many kids’ performance in the classroom.

Varied play is vital to student success, says Abby Loebenberg, an honors faculty fellow at Arizona State University and play advocate whose current research interests include the use of games as part of pedagogy in higher education.

While a student who has just pumped oxygen to the brain is more receptive to learning new information, that same child is also being primed to become a lifelong learner and to be better able to adapt to college and career situations. Free play is correlated with cognitive development: One study that controlled for IQ followed children over many years found that 4-year-olds who played with blocks in a more advanced manner did better in math in high school.

Children who engage in many different kinds of play are more likely to grow up to be young adults who are “able to respond well to new situations,” says Loebenberg, including the ability to be “more flexible in the college environment.”

A brain primed for new connections, new ways of thinking, new kinds of assignments, and new challenges — academic and otherwise — is one that is better able to thrive and meet today’s college and career readiness demands.

Universality of play

The biological impulse to play is overwhelming in small children, whereas adults often see it as a guilty indulgence. Educators often recognize the importance of exploration and release, and see that it’s actually counterproductive to require young children to sit and focus for hours on end.

According to the Gallup report, more than eight in 10 principals say free play has a “positive impact on academic achievement,” and two out of three say “students listen better after recess and are more focused in class.”

Increasingly, recess is being truncated in the United States, with breaks as short as 15 minutes at those schools that have them at all. By contrast, in Finland, which far outperforms the U.S. in reading, math, and science scores, children get 15 minutes of free time for every hour they’re in school.

In East Asia, they get 10 minutes of play after 40 minutes of instruction. In his book “Recess: Its Role in Education and Development,” Anthony D. Pellegrini reports that children are refreshed and more alert just after their breaks — they’re quite literally more able to learn.

Playing at home

Play advocates point out the problem isn’t just confined to diminishing free time at school, but also after school and on weekends. An increase in homework and screen time means some kids literally don’t know what to do with their decreased leisure time, leading to a changing social dynamic.

A developing brain makes more complex neural pathways when it has new and varied learning experiences. Although video games may enhance fine motor control skills, the relatively limited, repetitive nature of these games can result in the development of relatively simple neural pathways when done to excess — or when kids don’t have a variety of other play modes.

Some video game time can be complemented by a range of other play. Think of freestyle physical activities like running, skipping, and dancing, as well as informal variants of hopscotch, tag, and hacky sack. Play can be quieter, too, such as making things with basics like tape, paper, and string.

Avoid the temptation to only introduce team sports or art lessons that focus on product rather than process. “Don’t overprogram,” says Loebenberg. “Allow them to develop their own resources.”

Rebecca L. Weber is a journalist who covers education, the arts, the environment, and more for the New York Times, CNN, USA Today, and other publications. Visit her online at www.rebeccalweber.com or on Twitter @rebeccalweber.