From Classroom to Playground: Why Recess Is More than Just “Free Time” for Kids

Every day when my 9-year-old hops into the back seat, red-faced and breathless from hoisting an overstuffed backpack onto the floor, I ask him the same question: “Hey buddy, how was school?” And with almost as much regularity he responds the same way.

Does he give me an account of the discussion at the lunch table? Nope.

Tell me about his grade on a spelling test? Not even close.

He tells me— in sometimes excruciating detail— about his favorite part of the day: recess. What games they played. Who found the best hiding spot on the play structure. Which teacher reminded them when the play got too rambunctious (I feel her pain).

Without a doubt, recess is the highlight of my son’s school life, and apparently the American Academy of Pediatrics understands that.

In a recent policy statement the AAP outlined why recess is a “necessary break in the day” adding that it “should be considered a child’s personal time, and it should not be withheld for academic or punitive reasons.”  The authors also noted that the unstructured play that children engage in during recess has developmental benefits. These include improving classroom attentiveness, communication and social skills, and critical physical activity in a culture that’s emphasizing it less and less.

I see these benefits first hand. I know that my son is better able to tackle his homework if I give him some time to decompress after school. Even a 30 minute break seems to recharge his batteries and enable him to focus. But more importantly, I recognize that the first “job” of all children should be play. It’s how they make sense of the world and their place in it. It plays an important role in teaching them to navigate relationships and regulate their emotions, and lays the foundation for conflict resolution skills that will be so important as they get older.

At the same time, schools are grappling with big issues: keeping kids safe, inadequate teacher salaries, and low test scores among them. When it comes to priorities in education, it’s easy to imagine that ensuring our kids get enough time on the playground as being low on the list.

Looking back on my own elementary school experience, though, some of my happiest memories took place on the playground. Those happy feelings transferred from the playground to the classroom.

I want that not only for my kids, but for all children. As schools grapple with complex issues, my hope is that recess continues to be regarded not only as “free time” but necessary time.

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