Is recess the most important class of the day?

"Recess isn't normally considered part of school climate, and often is shortchanged in tight fiscal times, but our research shows that it can be a critical contributor to positive school climate in low-income elementary schools," says Milbrey McLaughlin. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Recess is more than just a chance for kids to burn off some pent up energy.

A new study shows a high-quality recess program can engage students in meaningful play and prepare them to learn when it’s time to go back to the classroom.

“Positive school climate has been linked to a host of favorable student outcomes, from attendance to achievement,” writes Milbrey McLaughlin, professor of education and public policy at Stanford University and founding director of the John W. Gardner Center.

“Recess isn’t normally considered part of school climate, and often is shortchanged in tight fiscal times, but our research shows that it can be a critical contributor to positive school climate in low-income elementary schools,” she says.

A positive school climate includes four key elements for students: physical and emotional safety at school; positive relationships with peers and adults; support for learning; and an institutional environment that fosters connectedness and engagement.

The right to play

Several leading organizations have recognized the importance of play. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights recognizes the right of all children to play, regarding it as an essential part of their well-being, especially for the economically disadvantaged.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has outlined a set of guidelines intended to help schools develop positive recess programs—guidelines necessary because recess today does not always meet these standards.

Many schools have cut back recess programs, watered down their effectiveness, or eliminated them altogether.

Because recess offers opportunities for both positive play and experience in learning how to resolve conflicts, it can have powerful implications for a child’s education, McLaughlin says.

Trained coaches

In a study published in the Journal of School Health, McLaughlin and colleagues examined six low-income elementary schools during the 2009-10 school year that had implemented a nonprofit organization’s recess-based program aimed at encouraging a safe, healthy, and inclusive environment.

Trained, full-time “coaches” were sent into low-income elementary schools with the goal of improving recess. They worked with students to establish recess games with a common set of rules, introduced conflict-resolution tools, and encouraged positive language and inclusive behavior. Each school had two recess periods during the day.

The findings were based on teacher, principal, and recess coach interviews; student focus groups; recess observations; and a teacher survey. Schools on the opposite ends of the recess spectrum—good and poor—were compared as well.

Adults are integral to a well-rounded recess experience, McLaughlin says.

“Recess seems like a time for kids to get some exercise or just have fun, but unless there are adults actively paying attention to and supporting a high-quality recess, it can be a time when kids feel unsafe, physically and emotionally,” she says.

Previously when students didn’t know or couldn’t agree on game rules, there could be conflicts. Overall, 89 percent of teachers surveyed agreed that there was improvement in recess organization.

A teacher from one school said: “It’s more of a structured, fun environment. You can see that they’re playing soccer, whereas, before, you weren’t sure what they were playing.”

Benefits of a better recess

The findings show several benefits of a structured recess.

  • Students feel safer. Fostering positive language, although challenging, was seen as key. About half of teachers (49 percent) reported that students frequently encouraged each other with positive language. One teacher said: “There’s a lot more collegiality between the kids. They’re using, ‘Hey, good job, nice try,’ instead of ‘Ha ha, you’re out.'”
  • Less bullying and fewer incidents of student-to-student conflict.
  • More student-initiated games. Students initiated games 83 percent of the time, as compared to 33 percent in schools without the recess program.
  • Girls are more engaged. More girls said they felt engaged in recess activities (85 percent to 55 percent).


“This analysis points to a new framing for how a high-quality recess can positively contribute to a school’s climate,” the authors write.

Change to better recess routines isn’t always easy. School cultures are frequently resistant to change; sometimes student attitudes and behaviors are at odds with well-established norms of behavior on the playground, McLaughlin says.

“We saw how a positive recess experience can benefit classroom climate in low-income elementary schools through students’ improved conflict-resolution skills and sense of teamwork.”

Rebecca London, formerly of Stanford and now a researcher at UC Santa Cruz, is the study’s lead author.

Source: Stanford University