Lately, school recess has been getting a lot of attention in the popular and research press. Some schools have it, more and more don’t. What’s ironic is that just as academic, budgetary and overcrowding issues have conspired to reduce recess, research has been highlighting its value.

Recess may be a new opportunity for schools can help kids and themselves at the same time.

Not only can recess help improve children's physical fitness and reduce childhood obesity, giving children time to be physically active, it helps them concentrate in school. Play also gives kids a chance to be creative and learn to solve disputes and make rules among themselves. Even more important, as play and recess have declined over the past half-century, anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism have increased, suggesting a connection between play and children's long-term mental health. It’s starting to look like recess is more than child's play.

Can Recess Improve Schools? Can It Prevent Bullying?

Recess may be a new opportunity for schools to help kids and themselves at the same time. A recent study looked at what happens when schools provide playground coaches to help encourage play and resolve disputes during recess. The study focused on low-income, urban schools.

Previous studies have shown that these schools schedule much shorter recess time than more advantaged school districts. This may reflect the fact that these schools are trying to address academic weaknesses by increasing instructional programs, but has raised concerns about the impact of lost play time on students.

The study evaluated a program called Playworks, which is designed to structure recess to help schools help students in six key areas: school climate, conflict resolution and aggression, learning and academic performance, recess experience, youth development and student behavior.

Using Recess to Promote Cooperation

The Playworks program uses recess time to address social and emotional development issues. The nonprofit group, in research sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, placed full time coaches in low-income schools to provide opportunities for organized play during recess and class time.

The coaches helped engage fourth and fifth graders in physical activity and gave them the social skills, such as using the tried and true rock-paper-scissors technique, needed for better cooperation and conflict resolution, so they spent more time playing and less time arguing or fighting. Playworks also trained junior coaches to help students develop leadership skills themselves and serve as role models for other students and offered an after-school program.

Playworks aims not to prevent conflict, but to help students manage it better.

The researchers, from Mathematica Policy Research and the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University, were interested in how well the Playworks program could be integrated into schools, how it might improve the schools' atmospheres, and how it was perceived by students and staff.

The program was initiated in 14 elementary schools during the 2010-11 academic year, while 11 schools had their usual recess activities and served as a Control. The principals who elected to participate in the Playworks program were motivated, many indicated, by the hope of better organization of recess time, improvement of school climate, improved safety, and reduction of conflicts as goals motivating their participation.

The idea behind the fully implemented program is that recess becomes both more structured and more organized, thus prompting students to practice their social skills. According to the report, "Rather than striving to eliminate all conflict, Playworks aims to give students the tools to better manage conflicts when they arise.”

Guidance on the Playground

The researchers evaluated the program based on onsite observations and feedback from 1,982 fourth and fifth grade students, 247 teachers, and 25 principals, as well as the 14 Playworks coaches who participated in the study. They also looked at how difficult it was to integrate the Playworks program into schools and found that the Playworks implementation was strong in seven of the study schools, and moderate in five.

Strong implementation implied that recess was structured and organized, conflicts and problem solving skills were being engaged, school staff was knowledgeable and supportive about Playworks. It also meant that the Playworks curriculum emphasizing cooperation and conflict resolution was part of in-class time and supported in school policies.

Moderate implementation meant that “most program components were in place and commitment was strong from some but not all staff members,” according to the report. For example, some principals felt that Playworks could potentially improve their schools' academics, but others, in some low-performing schools, were unwilling to give up academic time to the recess-based curriculum. Strong implementation was more likely in schools which already had recess and whose Playworks coaches were more experienced.

Early Results

The evaluation found some positive, and no negative, impacts of the Playworks program. Most teachers, students, and principals had favorable impressions. Teachers reported that the program addressed student needs and improved behaviors. Students reported enjoying the program and principals responded by inviting the program back.

suggests that recess time can be considered a potentially influential part of the school day that can foster important skills in individual students and in school communities.

Teachers in the schools using the Playworks program were significantly more likely than teachers in control schools to report positive perceptions of students’ safety and engagement in inclusive behavior at recess and significantly less bullying and exclusionary behavior during recess. Additionally, “Playworks had a positive impact on both student and teacher perceptions of the transition from recess to classroom activities•treatment students were significantly more likely to report better behavior and attention in class after participating in sports, games, and play than control students,” according to the report.

A year-long program during recess is unlikely to be able to change years of patterns of behavior, and students' own perceptions of recess or feelings of safety were basically unchanged. But much about the study of the Playworks experience was encouraging. It provides an example of a social skills curriculum that begins with structured and coached recess, but extends into the classroom setting. And it suggests that recess time can be considered a potentially influential part of the school day that can foster important skills in individual students and in school communities. Additional research on this and other recess-based curricula will provide important information for the ongoing dialogue about the place of recess in the school day.