Recess in Elementary School

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Jul 26, 2007

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 of recess. 

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). 

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