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Recess in Elementary School (page 2)

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

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). 

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