Redefining Recess: The Physical Benefits of Recess

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Redefining Recess: The Physical Benefits of Recess


Have you ever heard of the 3 “Rs” of education? If you haven’t, that’s okay!

The 3 “Rs” stand for READING, WRITING, and ARITHMETIC (math), and have long been considered the fundamental building blocks of education. It makes sense when you think about it, since many activities we undertake in our day-to-day lives revolve around at least a rudimentary understanding of reading, writing and math. Yet recent research has suggested it may be long past time to add the fourth “R,” RECESSto the other three. This comes at the heel of a growing body of evidence that physical activity improves a child’s ability to perform in school and develop important social-emotional skills later in life. 

But what exactly is recess, and how do we define it?

According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), recess can be defined as “a regularly scheduled period within the school day for physical activity and play that is monitored by trained staff or volunteers.” In other words, any daily activity that gets children up and moving can be defined as recess, whether it be hopscotch, outdoor sporting activities like kickball or soccer or aerobic exercises like yoga. 

The benefits of recess are numerous -- from facilitating social-emotional learning on the playground to fighting childhood obesity to improving academic scores across the board in the classroom -- so why is it now on the decline?

It used to be that parents and educators thought of recess as a privilege, a time that kids could better spend learning in the classroom and staying up-to-date on classwork. Many teachers would take away recess because students didn’t complete homework assignments or misbehaved throughout the day. I had to experience this misfortune on more than one occasion during my elementary school years. We even had a special name for it: sitting on the bench

This practice, as one might expect, left us feeling ostracized from the other kids. But it turns out punishment isn’t the only reason recess began to take a hit. Some teachers, for instance, needed to meet the strict learning requirements placed on them by the state and federal government in response to the “No Child Left Behind” Act of the early 2000s. Many found that they needed to stuff their students’ heads with information throughout the whole of the school day to meet those requirements. 

Luckily, this practice is beginning to reverse its course.

In their comprehensive “Strategies for Recess in Schools” guide, the CDC recommends against the “Prohibiting...of students from recess for disciplinary reasons or academic performance in the classroom” and the prohibition of “the use of physical activity during recess as punishment,” in schools, in addition to at least 20 minutes of recess daily. But small breaks for physical exercise have also been shown to provide benefits to students.

“The effects of a school-based exercise program on neurophysiological indices of working memory operations in adolescents” was published in the Journal of Science Medicine and Sport just this year, which showed a direct link between physical exercise and an improvement in adolescent memory throughout the day. “Daily engagement in a short combined aerobic and coordinative exercise program following the school lunch time break elicits benefits for working memory in adolescents,” wrote the co-authors of the Jan. 2018 study. “These changes are accompanied by improvements of task preparation processes, which allow the selection of a more appropriate cognitive control strategy.”

Long or short, some level of physical activity during the school day has been shown time and time again to elicit positive effects on students, both in the classroom and out. According to a Jan. 2013 policy statement published in the magazine Pediatrics, daily physical exercise also helps fight childhood obesity, in addition to improving movement and motor skills in children. 


“Although not all children play vigorously at recess, it does provide the opportunity for children to be active in the mode of their choosing and to practice movement and motor skills,” wrote the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in the policy statement. “Importantly, recess affords young children free activity for the sheer joy of it. Even minor movement during recess counterbalances sedentary time at school and at home and helps the child achieve the recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day, a standard strongly supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy, which can help lower risk of obesity.”


The physical benefits of recess really are substantial, and it is past time we “redefined recess” in schools. At Fit and Fun Playscapes, using a variety of unique, custom stencils for all sorts of play, we are doing just that.

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