Learning through Play: The Case for Recess

By Rebecca Bauer
Case for recess - Elementary school students run out of school to Schoolyard

Recess and free play help kids learn in a unique way. Yet, if there’s a weather delay or a change in schedule because of special programming, recess is often the first activity to go. If kids don’t finish their work, they often lose their recess because academics are the priority.

So why do we think of recess as an option, instead of a necessity? And what really is at stake when kids miss out on recess or their recess time isn’t fully utilized?

During a recent episode of Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast, William Massey, assistant professor at Oregon State University, shared the benefits of recess and how families can advocate for recess that effectively supports children’s social, emotional and physical growth.

“When we consider recess as less important than academics, we are failing to invest in our children’s holistic growth,” said Massey.

Recess Varies in Quality

Recess helps students thrive—from enhancing academic achievement to minimizing school discipline issues—there are a wealth of benefits to free play. However, recess is one of the primary places where bullying and victimization happens.

Given the importance of building a recess environment where children are safe, have fun and feel a sense of belonging, Massey said it’s important that adults offer a variety of ways to engage (different games, play structures, etc.) and help children work through conflicts when they occur.

Recess Helps to Develop Life Skills

William explained that recess mimics the real world. Children can choose their own activities, invent their own games and develop their own relationships, and there’s no teacher telling them how to do it.

“Kids spend about 200 days a year—for 12 years—at school,” said Massey. “Do we want that time to be only reading, writing, math or do we want them to learn skills like conflict resolution, negotiation, communication and how to self-organize a game? Those are the skills our children need to be successful in the real world.”

How to Ask Your Child About Recess

Regularly ask your child, “What do you do at recess?” and “Who do you play with?” If they answer that they aren’t really doing anything or playing with anyone, talk to the teacher to find out what is going on during recess. You also want to monitor to see if there are exclusion or clique issues on the playground.

If you see that, you know, one day they’re doing foursquare and then one day they’re playing basketball, and another day they’re playing football, you see that kids are able to kind of freely move through different types of games, play with different kids, and you have an environment that’s supporting that.

Get more info about recess and your child’s social and emotional development in our interview with William Massey, available wherever you listen to podcasts.

Rebecca Bauer is the family engagement specialist with the Center for Family Engagement at National PTA.

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