Kickball, tag, jump rope and hopscotch may look like recess activities, but what kids gain from them are actually social skills, health habits and a readiness to learn. Because recess is routinely shortchanged in budget−cutting times like these, parents and pediatricians may need to consider taking a stand on the fate of recess periods in the school day, especially since a new study has found that students do better in school when they have ample breaks for free time during the day.

Since the late 1970's children have lost 12 hours/week in free time, a 25% decrease in play and 50% decrease in unstructured outdoor activities.

The amount of recess time varies widely from school to school; and recent academic pressures, in part created by the No Child Left Behind Act, have pushed some schools to replace recess and the arts with more instructional time to meet the new test standards. Since the late 1970's children have lost 12 hours/week in free time, a 25% decrease in play and 50% decrease in unstructured outdoor activities.

Now, a new study shows how having a reasonable period of free time to exercise actually improves children's school performance.

More Play Means Better Classroom Behavior
The study, by researchers at the University of South Carolina and published in the February, 2009 issue of Pediatrics, focused on the notion that recess provides a critical change of pace and a recharging of energy, which then benefits learning by making the children less fidgety and more attentive to academic tasks. The researchers specifically examined the impact of recess time on classroom behavior.

The study data came from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS), sponsored by the US Department of Education. A longitudinal study is a study of one group of people over an extended period of time. The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study tracked a group of children from Kindergarten through middle school.

The South Carolina researchers looked at the ECLS data on 10,000−11,000 third graders in that study, aged eight to nine years old. They characterized the third graders' recess experience as non/minimal if it occurred less than five days per week, or if it occurred once daily for less than 10 minutes. Recess that occurred daily was reported in units of 15 minutes and physical education time was recorded as well.

The researchers also took into consideration the demographics of their young subjects. They obtained information on ethnicity, annual household income and parental education, on the schools' geographic location, private vs. public status. They also tracked classroom demographics, including the number of students in a class (greater or less than 21 students), academic level, and the proportion of boys, of students eligible for free lunch and minorities. This data was analyzed with the study results in a variety of statistical ways to eliminate the impact of all but recess time on the results.

The TRCB — the Teacher's Rating of Classroom Behavior — a standardized five−point scale that ranges from "frequently misbehaves" to "behaves well" was used to quantify students' classroom behavior. Teachers were also asked to complete more descriptive questionnaires.

The study found that 30% of the 10,000 third graders had either no recess at all or less than one 15 minute break daily. Almost 65% of these children had physical education in school twice a week or less. Notably, the children without recess were significantly more likely to be black or Hispanic, live in large or medium sized cities, live in the south, attend public school, and come from families with lower income and less parental education.

Children in the groups that had recess had better behavioral scores than the group that had non/minimal recess. Their results showed that students were better able to focus attention on the teacher and on assigned tasks after recess. The findings were consistent with the experience in Asian schools in which students are given a 10−minute break after every 40−50− minutes of instructional time. However, the data did not allow for distinguishing the impact of more or longer recess than the study standard of at least one 15−minute interval per day. More studies are needed to find the balance between time and frequency of recess and positive academic/behavioral impact. They also noted that the teachers whose classes had recess also might benefit from the break and tolerate classroom behavior differently.

The loss of recess time especially affects children from disadvantaged backgrounds, lower−income families and black and Hispanic ethnic groups. According to the researchers, this has an additional negative impact. For many of these children, the school yard is the only safe place they can play outdoors, as their home neighborhoods are frequently unsafe for outdoor play. This further compounds the health consequences of inactivity.

Recess Helps Friendships, Develops Skills and Reduces Obesity
Recess does more than make children better behaved and more attentive at school. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends free and unstructured play as an essential time for children to develop social, emotional and thinking skills. Play helps children learn to manage stressful situations, problem solve with peers and develop personal resiliency when they encounter playground−based challenges such as disputes over game rules, teams, and sharing space and equipment.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) suggests that recess should be provided at least once daily for 20 minutes or longer. Their recommendation is based on the belief that active children are more likely to be active adults and the current concern that the general inactivity of children is in part responsible for the growing prevalence of childhood obesity and diabetes. In fact, the NASPE guidelines suggest children between 5−12 should have at least sixty minutes daily of physical activity a day and that kids should be physically inactive for no more than 2 hours at a stretch. Regular recess is one way of meeting these goals.

Since school recess potentially serves multiple purposes in the daily life of a child, parents and pediatricians should be encouraged to find out more about their schools' practices. Members of school committees, medical consultants to school departments, and classroom parents all have a potential responsibility to communicate with teachers and principals. Often children don't report missing recess because it has been withheld as punishment. Thus, parents may have to speak directly with their teachers to find out the true nature of classroom and playground activities.

Free time during the school day plays an important role in the development of critical social interaction skills, present and future health, and has a positive effect on classroom learning. The growing body of research supporting these influences should raise our consciousness to the fact that recess is much more than a game of tag.