For days after my daughter’s good friend moved away, she played games where one doll would leave and the remaining toys would feel sad and use different methods to cope with missing the absent friend. As the toys worked through their feelings, she worked through hers. She was using play to help her understand her situation.
When children play at school, we usually call this recess. Because it is a break from classroom instruction, some people wrongly assume that it is a break from learning. Nothing could be further from the truth. The learning that goes on during recess—also referred to as undirected, free, or unstructured play—is essential for childhood development.
Recess Lets Kids Practice for Adulthood
Kids Learn Self Control and Cooperation
Play comes naturally to children and other young mammals as a way to make sense of their surroundings and gain the life skills needed to thrive in their environment. If you’re a baby cheetah, you play chase, a skill you’ll need when you hunt for food. If you’re a young child, you might play house or freeze tag. In playing house, you are modeling the behavior you see in a parent or caregiver and “practicing” for adulthood. As for freeze tag, you won’t need to play that when you grow up, but you will need the skills of negotiation, cooperation, and self-control that you learned while organizing the game.
So, let’s consider the playground a different type of classroom, one where children learn without being instructed (though still supervised). What kinds of things will they learn there? What are the benefits of recess?
The aforementioned skills—self-control, negotiation, and cooperation—are just some of the social skills acquired during free play. As children work out games with their peers, they must exercise these skills, as well as communication and problem solving, if they want to continue the game (which of course they do).
If they play too rough or are too bossy, for example, the game might fall apart. Navigating the social scene and achieving the playful goal requires the child to employ a variety of skills that will benefit him/her greatly as an adult.
One of the obvious benefits of play is exercise, so some consider recess equivalent to physical education or PE. Though both contribute to physical health and motor skill development, PE is directed by a teacher whereas recess allows children to choose their own games and activities.
While in PE, children play the game the teacher decides within the rules laid out by the teacher. This, in itself, is not a bad thing; children learn new games and are challenged physically. But when children are allowed to choose, their confidence grows and their decision-making and executive-functioning skills improve.
Because recess is undirected, it provides a rich environment for children to cultivate leadership skills and strengthen their ability to work with others to come to a consensus—a definite advantage in today’s society. Additionally, children exercise much more creativity in making up their own games.
Creativity is cultivated whether children design and engage in physical games or in imaginative ones, like playing family, astronauts, or monsters. When a child is working on a classroom assignment, the activity might have room for creativity, but play opens up a whole new level of creative, critical thinking. It often requires use of creative language, such as a silly accent or made-up vocabulary, which helps children in their understanding of language generally.
Stress Relief Is An Added Benefit Of Recess
Exercise And Fresh Air Keep Kids Healthy
Recess also provides an opportunity for children to wrestle with problems, like a friend moving away, a death in the family, or an abusive situation. Whether the problem is simple or serious, children naturally use play to sort out feelings and make sense of things. Not only is this a good time for children to process their feelings, but it is also a good time for teachers to observe their students to get a fuller picture of their strengths and struggles.
Is a child suddenly bullying others or keeping to herself or acting out an emotional issue through role play with friends? When teachers actively watch children play, they can better answer these questions and more effectively approach their students’ education.
School recess can be especially important for children in lower income areas for whom outdoor play may be infrequent, and emotionally diffcult experiences may be more pronounced. Also, as academic pressure increases in schools, so does student stress. Recess is a wonderful stress reliever for kids and helps decrease their anxiety.
Play helps children unpack academic concepts as well. If a child just learned about whales, she might pretend to be one. In her game, she remembers she has to resurface for air because a whale is a mammal. Through play, she reinforces a science lesson. If a child has just learned to count, he uses that skill again when determining if two groups of players are equal.
Play has been shown to boost academic performance not only because children consolidate what they learned through it, but also because it provides physical activity that pumps more blood to the brain. After recess, a child’s brain in primed for classroom learning. Focus and behavior also improve, and children readily receive additional information.
A child who has not had adequate play, however, is often more likely to fidget, cause disturbances in class, and be off-task. This not only has academic effects for that child, but also diverts the teacher’s attention from class instruction to discipline. More recess means more opportunities for children to get their energy out in a healthy, creative way and to return to the classroom refreshed.
Much of what children learn through play cannot be conveyed as effectively through direct instruction. We might be able to isolate a lesson, i.e. teach about friendship, or give a creative art project, but no classroom lesson covers so broad a scope as the lessons learned at recess.
Recess Is A Fundamental Priority
Virginia House Bill 1419 Permits Schools Time For Recess
Recess is fundamental to childhood development and learning. So, why isn’t it a priority in our public schools? In July 2018, Virginia passed House Bill 1419 allowing schools to use up to 15 percent, or 50 minutes, of instructional time for recess. In Tidewater, most elementary schools have a 15-20 minute recess. Though our children need and deserve more time to learn through play, they get less than half of what is allowed.
Recently, following much advocacy on behalf of parents, Virginia Beach Public Schools changed their policy, increasing Kindergarten recess to 40 minutes and that of grades 1-5 to 30 minutes. For the past year, parents with More Recess for Virginians—Norfolk have been advocating for recess increases in Norfolk’s public schools as well, but have yet to see a policy change.
We are calling for “20/20 by 2020”, which is adding two 20-minute recess periods (for a total of 40 minutes daily) for the 2019-2020 school year. You can help by contacting your child’s principal and our school board members to voice your concerns. Please join us in advocating for more recess and the myriad ways it is crucial to our children’s growth, development and well-being.
For more information:
• Visit www.facebook.com/groups/ 2241624319446921/ (Norfolk specific) for more information about our group’s efforts and to view articles and research that supports increased recess for kids.
• View our petition to the Norfolk School Board here: http://chng.it/5jMZyZQK
• Visit www.facebook.com/morerecessforhamptonroads.com/ for our broader area effort.
Whitney Davis is a Norfolk native and a graduate of the Norfolk public school system. A former kindergarten teacher, she currently teaches art at Larchmont United Methodist Preschool and Sunday School at First Presbyterian Church in Norfolk. She has two daughters who attend Norfolk public schools, one entering kindergarten and the other second grade.