Importance of Recess

School Recess: Why Sports, Games, and Playtime Are Important

In an increasingly competitive world where students are expected to excel academically (or be left behind), kids are losing opportunities for unstructured playtime. Instead, recess, sports, game time, and just plain fun are being replaced with extra lessons, tutoring sessions, and other academic pursuits.

In order to give students the opportunities to learn from their peers and their own imagination, forward-thinking schools need to return to a more balanced involvement with both unstructured and structured play.

Why Recess Is Important

It’s an essential part of any students’ day: a break, a chance to interact with fellow classmates, the time to finally use all that energy trapped inside their growing bodies and minds. Recess also provides a moment of relief from the often rigid structure and curriculum that students tend to follow day in and day out.

Of course children are more likely to be successful with an academic structure, but they also need to blow off steam and have space to learn, fail, and discover. As the U.S. Center for Disease and Control (CDC) defines it, “Recess is a regularly scheduled period in the school day for physical activity and play that is monitored by trained staff or volunteers. During recess, students are encouraged to be physically active and engaged with their peers in activities of their choice.”

Furthermore, students who are allowed to enjoy recess each day reap the benefits of:

  • Increased levels of physical activity
  • Improved memory, attention, and concentration
  • Ability to stay on-task in the classroom
  • Reduced disruptive behavior in the classroom
  • Improved social and emotional development

Whether it’s pulling together their own teams for a few rounds of kickball or using the jungle gym as the stage for their musical, children thrive in a world where recess and playtime a given. Moreover, learning to share, communicate, and self-direct are all important skills for whole-person development.  

Making Time for Unstructured Play

Unfortunately, things like recess and school sports are not always a given, putting many students’ focus, imagination, health, and social skills at risk. As the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation says, “A growing body of research shows that play is essential to the physical, social and emotional development of kids. But recess tends to be an afterthought when it comes to education policy, and we’ve even seen recess minutes steadily decline as a result.”

Making time for safe, mostly unstructured play is an essential part of student’s education and childhood. In order to give students the opportunity to find success within their structured lives, it’s important to allow them the freedom to just be kids, to play without too much adult interference.  

So, how can teachers and administration make time for unstructured play in an otherwise jam-packed school day? Hand the reins over to students — just for a bit.

While that might sound like a disaster waiting to happen, self-motivation and spontaneity are some of the key factors of unstructured activities for students of all ages. Giving them the time, space, and tools to create their own exploration of the world can be done via student-led games, creative art activities that don’t demand perfection or require too much instruction, and even building stuff out of blocks or perhaps a classroom fort. These simple, but effective activities provide students with that necessary playtime (and all its benefits).

Why Sports Are Important

While sports are certainly more structured than recess, it’s a different, similarly valuable kind of structure that also involves physical motivation, learning, and teamwork. The benefits of athletics for kids are pretty clear. According to Ohio State University, participation in sports from early childhood through high school can:

  • Decrease the risk of getting heart disease and diabetes
  • Improve academic achievement
  • Improve weight and health control
  • Decrease the likelihood of cigarette smoking
  • Higher test scores
  • Improve relationship with peers
  • Teach important skills such as teamwork, good sportsmanship, and discipline

This is why top schools continue to enable and prioritize sports for students at every grade level — including at university. However, as important as sports are for kids, there is one problem. Today, the focus has shifted from fun to winning.

While winning can help with student’s self-esteem and morale, when it becomes the only way to enjoy sports, the cons out way the pros. Furthermore, when the focus is solely on winning, students participation in sports goes down due to their fear of being yelled at by coaches, parents, and even ridiculed by fellow classmates. That’s why as important as athletics is, it’s crucial that schools and families put the emphasis on fun, teamwork, and playtime.

Why Games Are Important

Similar to sports, structured games can provide many learning opportunities for students both inside and outside the classroom. While it’s still important to emphasize more unstructured play, it’s all about balance. Considering that the nature of games is often educational and explorational, it adds structure to play and learning.

Furthemore, “Structured play is typically a physical or cognitive (brain skill) activity. It doesn’t need to be formal or highly organized … During structured play, children are introduced to new ideas and opportunities, enhancing their development and learning abilities, such as setting the foundations for learning to focus, pay attention, take turns and follow instructions.”

While different from unstructured play and recess, creating positive structure within students lives is beneficial. However, keeping the two (structured and unstructured) separate from one another is also the key to finding success with both.

From school recess to co-curricular activities, involving students more into the world of creativity and imagination, exploration, and downright fun, can help them discover new interests, build confidence, and improve their social skills and health. With the recent decline in recess and participation in sports, enough research shows that we should be hanging onto these vital aspects of student’s childhood. We expect improvement from students throughout their educational careers, so we can certainly work towards an improvement of recess and how we teach through unstructured and structured play.