Recess in Elementary School: What Does the Research
Say? ERIC Digest.
by Jarrett, Olga S.
Pellegrini and Smith (1993) define recess as "a break period, typically
outdoors, for children" (p. 51). Compared to the rest of the school day,
recess is a time when children have more freedom to choose what they want
to do and with whom.
A 1989 survey of state superintendents conducted by the National Association
of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) found that schools in 90% of school
districts had at least one recess period during the day (Pellegrini, 1995).
However, according to the American Association for the Child's Right to
Play (IPA/USA), many school systems have abolished recess since 1989. Safety
and liability concerns and fears that recess will disrupt work patterns
may underlie the decision to do away with recess (Pellegrini, 1995). Other
reasons cited for abolishing recess include the need for more instructional
time. Personal conversations with principals and teachers suggest that
they feel pressured to pack more instruction into the school day because
of new calls for accountability.
Given the current national emphasis on research-based decisions in education,
the question of what the research says--and infers--about recess is important
(Jarrett & Maxwell, 2000). This Digest discusses research on recess
and its relationship to learning, social development, and child health,
as well as research on related topics that have implications for recess
policy such as the need for breaks and physical activity.
RECESS AND LEARNING
The most obvious characteristic of recess is that it constitutes a break
from the day's routine. For people of all ages and in all fields, breaks
are considered essential for satisfaction and alertness. Experimental research
on memory and attention (e.g., Toppino, Kasserman, & Mracek, 1991)
found that recall is improved when learning is spaced rather than presented
all at once. Their findings are compatible with what is known about brain
functioning: that attention requires periodic novelty, that the brain needs
downtime to recycle chemicals crucial for long-term memory formation, and
that attention involves 90- to 110-minute cyclical patterns throughout
the day (Jensen, 1998).
In experimental studies, Pellegrini and Davis (1993) and Pellegrini,
Huberty, and Jones (1995) found that elementary school children became
progressively inattentive when recess was delayed, resulting in more active
play when recess occurred. Another experimental study (Jarrett et al.,
1998) found that fourth-graders were more on-task and less fidgety in the
classroom on days when they had had recess, with hyperactive children among
those who benefited the most. Clearly, breaks are helpful, both for attention
and for classroom management, whether or not the breaks are in the form
Does time spent playing or learning actively detract from academic achievement?
Research conducted in French and Canadian schools over a period of four
years shows positive effects of time spent in physical activity (Martens,
1982). The results of spending one-third of the school day in formal and
less formal physical education, in art, and in music were increased fitness,
improved attitudes, and slight improvements in test scores. These results
are consistent with the findings of a meta-analysis of nearly 200 studies
on the effect of exercise on cognitive functioning that suggest that physical
activity supports learning (Etnier et al., 1997).
RECESS AND SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT
Recess may be the only opportunity for some children to engage in social
interactions with other children. Many classrooms allow very little interaction.
Furthermore, latchkey children, who lock themselves in at home after school
with TV and computer games as companions, often have no peer interactions
once they leave school.
Much of what children do during recess, including the sharing of folk
culture (Bishop & Curtis, 2001), making choices, and developing rules
for play, involves the development of social skills. According to observations
during elementary school recess (Jarrett et al., 2001), children organize
their own games, deciding on the rules and determining which team goes
first or who is "it." Game playing can occur in the classroom as well as
on the playground; however, according to Hartup and Laursen (1993), game
playing in the classroom is typically in a "closed setting" where the children
cannot withdraw from the game. Recess provides a more "open setting" where
children are free to leave the play situation. In open settings, children
must learn to resolve conflicts to keep the game going, resulting in low
levels of aggression on the playground.
Because recess is one of the few times in the school day when children
can interact freely with peers, it is a valuable time in which adults can
observe children's social behaviors, their tendency to bully and fight,
as well as their leadership and prosocial behaviors (Hartle et al., 1994).
Seeing how their students interact socially can help teachers and other
playground supervisors intervene in situations involving aggression or
social isolation. Successful intervention programs have been developed
for teaching inclusion and sportsmanship (Gallegos, 1998). Other intervention
programs have used children as playground leaders (Calo & Ingram, 1994),
conflict managers (Evans & Eversole, 1992), or as play partners to
help individual students manage their own behaviors (Nelson, Smith, &
Colvin, 1995). There is some evidence that playground interventions generalize
to better behavior in other settings (Nelson, Smith, & Colvin, 1995).
RECESS AND CHILD HEALTH
Physical inactivity poses health threats for children as well as for
adults. Inactivity, according to research cited in Waite-Stupiansky and
Findlay (2001), is associated with the tripling of childhood obesity since
1970, accompanied by increases in health problems such as high blood pressure
and high cholesterol. How active are children during recess? Kraft (1989)
found that elementary school children engaged in physical activity 59%
of the time during recess, with vigorous physical activity occurring 21%
of the time--slightly more time in vigorous activity than occurred during
physical education (PE) classes (15%). More recent research cited in Pellegrini
and Smith (1998) shows similar patterns. Although not all children are
active during recess, children's tendency to choose physical activity on
the playground when they need it the most is expressed in higher levels
of activity on the playground after recess was delayed (Pellegrini &
Davis, 1993; Pellegrini, Huberty, & Jones, 1995); higher activity levels
by children who tend to be inattentive in the classroom (Pellegrini &
Smith, 1993); and high initial activity levels, decreasing after the first
6-7 minutes on the playground (Pellegrini & Davis, 1993). If children
do not have the opportunity to be active during the school day, they do
not tend to compensate after school. Experimental research found that children
were less active after school on days when they had no recess and PE classes
in school (Dale, Corbin, & Dale, 2000).
Can PE be substituted for recess? The National Association for Sport
and Physical Education says "No." In their position statement, they recommend
both PE and recess, with PE providing a "sequential instructional program"
related to physical activity and performance and recess providing unstructured
play time where children "have choices, develop rules for play...and practice
or use skills developed in physical education" (Council for Physical Education
and Children, 2001).
The available research suggests that recess can play an important role
in the learning, social development, and health of elementary school children.
While there are arguments against recess, no research clearly supports
not having recess. However, more research is needed to determine the current
percentage of schools that have abolished recess and assess the effect
of no- recess policies on student test scores, attitudes, and behaviors.
Further experimental research could help clarify how often recess breaks
should occur, whether indoor recess can substitute for outdoor recess,
and how much involvement/guidance is needed by adult supervisors.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
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Council for Physical Education and Children. (2001). RECESS IN ELEMENTARY
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EDUCATION [Online]. Available: http://www.aahperd.org/naspe/pdf_files/pos_papers/current_res.pdf.
Dale, D., Corbin, C. B., & Dale, K. S. (2000). Restricting opportunities
to be active during school time: Do children compensate by increasing physical
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