With an hour-long recess, elementary schools can help children develop through increased creative play, authentic SEL, and adequate physical regulation.
“Here they come,” the teacher tells me with a weary smile. The children are on their way back from recess. Excited voices echo from down the hallway. I’ve decided to volunteer at my daughter’s elementary school for the afternoon. Eager to see her smiling face, I intently watch the door as the children enter. Their energy as they trickle into the classroom is almost palpable. Even though the children are told to quickly take a seat, it takes a solid ten minutes for them to settle in. There are reminders to put away jackets, trips to the bathroom, pencils being sharpened, children talking to other children, brief episodes of giggling, and a few rowdy demonstrations of affection between some boys.
Later, the teacher confides in me, “I don’t understand it. I think the children have more energy after they’ve had recess! Sometimes I wonder if recess is even worth it.”
Shortfalls of a Short Recess
Many teachers report that the period after recess is the absolute hardest transition time of the day. The children are often so wound up that it’s hard bring their focus back to their lessons. Some teachers confess to using special techniques to calm and re-focus the children, such as dimming the lights or playing soothing music as they reenter the classroom. While these are great coping strategies to help manage the chaos, preventing episodes of amplified activity from occurring in the first place may prove to be the most beneficial. To do that, we need to allow for a longer recess session. May I boldly suggest at least an hour?
An adequate amount of recess time (or lack thereof) can directly affect children’s ability to pay attention, self-regulate, socialize intelligently, and master complex learning skills. We can try to squeeze in short movement breaks here and there, but it won’t have the same effects — or, for that matter, even the same potential. Small movement breaks will always fall short of a good old-fashioned lengthy recess time. Here are three reasons why:
1. Creative Play: Recess sessions that last at least an hour have the potential to foster creative play. Many early childhood centers stress the importance of “large blocks of time (45-60 minutes)” for play throughout the day to help children develop “problem-solving skills that require persistence and engagement.” Observations through our summer camp program consistently demonstrate that it takes an average of 45 minutes of free play before children dive deep into more complex and evolved play schemes. It takes time for children to figure out who they’re going to play with, what they’re going to play, what everyone’s role will be, and finally to execute their plan. If recess lasts only 15-20 minutes, the children are just figuring out who they’ll play with and what they’ll do before the bell rings and recess is over. Many times, this allows for few (if any) imaginative play opportunities.
2. Social-Emotional Development: In recent years, children have exhibited more trouble reading social cues, demonstrating empathy, and effectively socializing with their peers. Schools have created special “social skills groups” to help combat this problem. However, these adult-directed gatherings that emphasize role-playing are limited in their applicability. Children learn social skills best through real-life scenarios and play opportunities with their peers. They quickly learn that whining doesn’t work with friends and that they don’t always get what they want. To learn effective social skills, children need plenty of opportunities to freely engage with other children. Recess, if long enough, offers an ideal environment to practice these skills.
3. Physical Regulation: Children require longer than 20 minutes of active free play in order to regulate their bodies and prepare for learning (PDF). In fact, when you first let children outdoors, their initial movement experiences will actually increase their activity levels. According to Eric Jensen’s book Teaching With the Brain in Mind, “A short recess arouses students and may leave them ‘hyper’ and less able to concentrate.” Children benefit from an extended recess session (approximately an hour in length), because it gives their bodies time to regulate the movement and bring their activity level back down again.
A Call to Active Play
Let’s face it: the current 20-minute recess sessions are not long enough. A mere 20 minutes won’t allow children to dive deep into their imaginary worlds or create elaborate play schemes. This is not enough time for children to practice effective social skills — something that’s lacking in this age of technology. And a short recess won’t let children regulate their bodies to prepare them for higher-level learning experiences.
If we just made our recess sessions a little longer, we would likely see significant changes in child behavior, attention, and even creativity. The Swanson Primary School in Auckland, New Zealand is a perfect example of giving children more time and freedom at recess, and of the many benefits they saw as a result. We can do the same. All we need to do is make recess a priority once again.