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June 23, 2010 at 9:05 AMComments: 6 Faves: 1

Recess: 4 Reasons It's Actually Really Important

By Erin Froehlich More Blogs by This Author

Today, the decreasing amount of unstructured play time available to children has many psychologists worried. Parents are trying to fit in as many educational activities as they can with hopes of giving their children an advantage, but many now have their child's entire day scheduled to the brim with school, chores and after school activities. While these are well-meaning efforts for sure, the experts worry that all this emphasis on extracurriculars is robbing children of necessary and deeply beneficial free time.

"It's such a tragedy" says Jane Healy, psychologist, educator and author of Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About It.

Healy worries our understanding of what a child needs has gone frighteningly far off base .

"It's parenting as product development... Everything about children's lives these days seems to be so serious, and play looks like it's not valuable enough... I just don't think parents - or even policy makers - understand that children's spontaneous, self-generated play has tremendous potential to actually enhance brain development and increase kids intelligence and academic ability."

Where Has Play Time Gone?

Startling statistics for a little insight into this question:

SINCE 1970-

  • Children have lost 12 hours of free time a week.
  • Unstructured play has dropped by 25%.
  • Unstructured outdoor activities have dropped by 50%.
  • Time in structured sports has doubled.

SINCE 1980-

  • The amount of homework given to 6-8 year olds has tripled.


  • The typical American family now spends 30 hours a week in front of a TV or computer.
  • Recess has been reduced or eliminated in 40% of American elementary schools.

Though research has proven that unstructured play is essential to creative, intellectual, emotional and social skills, schools, under increasing pressure to deliver higher scores on standardized tests, are decreasing the amount of free time kids have in favor of more study and homework. In fact, in some school districts today elementary schools are being built without any playground at all.

Early childhood education professor Olga Jarrett weighs in on the issue,

"I suspect a lot of what we are seeing in terms of hyperactivity in kids may be related to the inappropriateness of the school day for children's physical needs." Says Stanley Greenspan, child development expert and author of "The Secure Child", "I think many families are much too focused on trying to teach children concrete memory-based things, like letters of numbers.. Those things are important, but memorizing doesn't teach you to think."

Thought recess was just nap time for tired teachers? Think again! Here are 4 reason recess is REALLY important for our kids.

1. Recess Boosts Social Skills

Maybe most important, the creative play that happens during recess teaches children social skills. Because it requires collaborative effort to create scenarios, children will learn in this time they must sometimes allow the other child to be the princess, or their friends will stop playing with them. They will also develop valuable language skills as they must accurately describe what they are imagining to friends in order for play to work.

So, if imaginative play builds social skills, what happens when it is reduced or removed from a child's daily life?

Research compared two groups of 23 year olds - one that attended an instruction-oriented preschool and one that attended a play-oriented preschool program. Among the group that attended a play-oriented preschool, 10% had been arrested for a felony. But compare that with those who attended instruction-oriented preschool and the percent arrested for a felony climbed to more than 3 times that - up to 30%! And this is not the first study to show a link between a lack of play and crime. Research on murderers in Texas prisons showed the vast majority had two things in common - they were abused as children AND they were never allowed to play.

2. Recess Relieves Stress

In one daycare study, three to four year old children were assessed and labeled either "anxious" or "not anxious" at the beginning of the day based on factors like behavior (like whining and begging parents to stay) and palm sweat. These groups were then split in half with one half allowed to play alone or with peers in a room full of toys, and the other half sitting and listening to the teacher tell a story for 15 minutes.

When the time was up, researchers found that while non-anxious kids remained fairly unchanged, anxious kids who were allowed to play (especially those who played alone) had stress levels that dropped by more than DOUBLE the amount of those who listened to the story. Researchers believe this is due to the problem-solving aspect of play. When a child engages in unstructured play, especially when they play by themselves, they are able to create scenarios that will help them deal with problems and stressful situations.

3. Recess Makes Children Smarter

Not only does play teach children social skills and relieve stress, but according to studies, it also makes them smarter. One showed that elementary school boys who engaged in play fighting most often also did the best in social problem solving tests. Another study gave a box of toy blocks to children 1 to 2 years old from middle and low income families with children, this time to determine the effect of play on language development. Compared to the control group who had no blocks, they scored significantly higher on language tests. Researchers point to these studies as further proof of creativity's close ties to problem solving abilities.

4. Recess Leads to Creativity

While time with a parent is very important to a child's development, it's okay to let children entertain themselves sometimes. Too often, parents will put on a movie  or flip on the TV when their child complains of boredom - but they're really doing them a disservice. Sharna Olfman, associate psychology professor comments "It's really so much better to let your child be bored. Amazingly enough, they will eventually think of something to do." Katrina Kenison, parenting book author adds "Today's adults learned the benefits of boredom as a child...Left to our own amusements, we found resources we didn't know we had...These were valuable lessons... and I fear that our own busy, well-entertained children may not ever have a chance to learn them. Inventiveness and self-reliance are being scheduled right out of them."


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  • My girlfriend just expressed her concern of her 2nd grader losing one of his recess' in this school year....she was really upset and at first I wasn't really understanding where she was coming from, however after reading this, I have a much better understanding and appreciation for the need of recess time! Thanks Erin!

  • Thanks for posting this Erin! I totally agree, there needs to be a balance between work and play. Plus, children learn so much during playtime. Playtime leads to creativity like you said above. And it also leads to learning social skills if children play together. I remember making up all kinds of creative stories with my friends when I was little.

    Another thing I used to love was painting the deck with water. I know it sounds silly and like it wasn't much fun. But really liked seeing how the wood got darker and then lighter after the water evaporated. I think that's where I learned that water evaporated. I didn't need an educational interactive toy. Just a paint brush and a bucket of water. Playtime can be educational time in its own way. I also learned motor skills and balance by climbing trees. :)

  • This is a great blog Erin. Bri, I got warm fuzzes reading about your paint brush and water. That keeps my grandkids busy in my workshop for hours.

  • Thanks for posting this, Erin! Imaginative play is SO important. My niece and nephew were visiting a couple weeks ago, and the "toy" that was the biggest hit wasn't the plastic motorcycles or the little plastic beauty set - it was a big cardboard box that they could play in. They had so much fun, and I loved watching them use their imaginations!

    Also on the topic of boredom - I have a friend who has 5 kids, and she simply never taught them the word "bored." I think that's a fantastic idea.

  • My niece would rather play with rollers (such imagination) or any other thing she can get her hands on rather than regular toys :)

  • never really thought bout recess being important other than to get out of a class very interesting any further sites and info i can look up

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