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Kids at Recess

Guest Post: Time to Stop Playing with School Recess

Kimberly Clevenger

Kimberly Clevenger is an Assistant Professor in Kinesiology and Health Science at Utah State University, with a background in exercise physiology. Her research interests are in the promotion and measurement of physical activity, particularly in children. 

For many, the mention of school recess brings back fond memories like being outside, hanging upside down, or making up new games with friends. These unstructured breaks are an opportunity for children to socialize, practice skills like conflict resolution, be creative, learn and apply learning, be physically active, and participate in spontaneous and free-play. Recess also serves as a much-needed break from academic pressures, the expectations of adults, and the structured and sedentary nature of the school day. It is the unstructured and autonomous nature of recess that sets it apart from other parts of the school day and makes it uniquely beneficial to children’s physical, mental, and social well-being.

In line with recent research, we recommend that all children, kindergarten through 12th grade, be provided at least 30 minutes of daily recess. Children in the United States are scheduled to have about 25 minutes of recess per day, an estimate that has declined over time, and falls short compared to other countries. Because it is often not required, recess time can too easily be reduced when something else comes up like testing or an assembly. This amount of recess is also disturbingly similar to the typical two, 15-minute breaks allotted to working adults. In line with the adage ‘play is the work of childhood,’ recess should be recognized as an essential part of the school day. However, providing high-quality recess is just as important as providing enough recess time. Overcrowding, limited options or equipment for all children regardless of weather, negative exposures like traffic noise, and lack of training for recess supervisors can lead to boredom, injuries, bullying, and other antisocial behaviors. 

While our goal should be to provide sufficient quality recess to all children, youth in middle or high school are often left out of conversations about recess, yet they stand to gain the most from the physical and psychological benefits of recess. Similarly, Black children and those at/below the poverty line get 10 fewer minutes of recess per day than their White or more affluent counterparts. These same children may have less opportunity for free-play outside of school. As stated by Olga Jarrett from Georgia State University, “since children who usually have recess consider it punishment when recess is withdrawn, one could consider that whole segments of the population are being punished daily.” 

We call on parents, educators, and community members to work together to promote positive change in the quality and quantity of recess provided to the children in their communities. However, change can also be made at the state or national level. Currently, no national policy requires schools to provide recess, and Utah is one of 29 states without a codified law in place recommending or requiring recess for school children. Recognizing the unique contributions of recess and ensuring all children have equitable access to these benefits can promote the long-term health and well-being of the children of Utah.