Recess Quality Impacts Student Social, Emotional, Behavioral Health

Girl swinging gleefully on a swingset.

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Key Takeaways

  • A recent study reveals a correlation between quality recess and the social/emotional status of students throughout the rest of the school day.
  • Factors that improved recess quality included the involvement of monitors, safe and fun play equipment, a variety of options, and inclusion in social groups.
  • Parents and educators who want to improve students' mental health, physical health, and academic performance can look towards bettering the recess experience.

A new study, published in the Journal of School Health, measured the quality of recess based on safety, equipment, inclusion among other kids, and the options they had for play. The findings were clear—the quality of recess accurately correlated with executive functioning problems, resilience, emotional self-control, and adaptive classroom behaviors.

This study is just another of many factors contributing to the ever-widening gap in education between children in high and low socioeconomic situations. 

The Study

Researchers analyzed 26 different schools in 4 regions of the United States, tracking 3rd- and 5th-grade students in all socioeconomic environments. The teachers filled out behavioral assessments for students in their classrooms, and researchers used live observations as well during recess. 

Researchers were analyzing the type and quality of equipment, cleanliness of the play space, a diversity of activities available, and even how involved the adults were with children, which helped minimize conflict between students as well.

The Impact of High Quality Play

It’s a well-known fact across a variety of child development research that play matters for the social, emotional, and behavioral health of children of all ages. This study further emphasizes this assertion, focusing specifically on the role of recess, sometimes one of the few chances children have to play throughout the school day. 

Leah Witman Moore, a New York City Teacher of the Year with 16 years of experience and author of the book and parenting blog “Loving You Big,” has seen firsthand the power of play for her students. “Play is the foundation for success in school—at any age. It provides an opportunity for a child to make decisions, explore new situations, and take away the pressure the traditional constructs of school provide,” she says. “Not only does it engage the social-emotional needs of the children, but also revitalizes them for more academic tasks. 

Psychologists and child development experts echo her sentiment wherever possible. Child psychologist Amy Marschall, PsyD, says, “Kids process emotion through play the way adults process through talking.” This makes recess an essential activity in every child’s day, not just a break from their “real” education.

The Makings of a Fun and Productive Recess

To understand just how parents and educators can support students, the study encourages a few key aspects of an impactful and helpful recess experience:

A Safe and Clean Environment

The study showed that some kids were having to contend with unsafe environments, met with used condoms and needles littered around their play place, which at times contained no equipment at all. This aspect revealed yet another aspect of inequity in the education system widening the gap between schools of various socioeconomic statuses. 

Kathleen Walls, PsyD, director of the behavioral health team at Southwest Leadership Academy Charter School, explains: “In any U.S. state, there exists vast disparities from school district to school district and even school to school. In West Philadelphia, some schools have outdated, tattered, or even no playground equipment. Travel 20 minutes to the city’s Mount Airy section, and you will find playgrounds with a sprawling, wooden oasis for children to climb and explore and even equipment that supports brain development, such as large plastic puzzles and tic-tac-toe games,” she says. “It’s the same school district but different neighborhoods regarding race and economics. That is what inequity looks like.”

Kathleen Walls, PsyD, MS

In West Philadelphia, some schools have outdated, tattered, or even no playground equipment. Travel 20 minutes to the city’s Mount Airy section, and you will find playgrounds with a sprawling, wooden oasis for children to climb and explore and even equipment that supports brain development, such as large plastic puzzles and tic-tac-toe games.

— Kathleen Walls, PsyD, MS

Researchers suggest creating a safe environment through some simple measures, even if a school is dealing with a tight budget. Study author William Massey told Science Daily that even low cost measures like having adults do a safety sweep of the area in the morning, or ensuring a soccer goal and ball are already set up, could maximize whatever short recess time the kids have.

Maintain a Variety of Activity Options

To improve self-control, resilience, and other behaviors throughout the school day, the study says students need diverse options for play, not just an open field. For example, a variety of types of balls, sidewalk chalk, and a safe and clean play structure will give them ideas for things to do. Relying on them to simply play tag, or come up with games on their own every time can work, but might get stale and decrease the positive impact on behaviors throughout the day, researchers found.

Walls suggests thinking beyond the traditional playground to include all types of learners and interests. For example, she says hands-on learning should be more integrated into the recess experience, and we need to include spaces “that promote innovation and creativity, such as music stations.” 

Marschall adds that in addition to a variety of activities, she’d like to see longer recesses, referencing that countries such as Finland have longer and more frequent “unstructured times” and continue recess long after elementary school. “All ages would benefit,” she says.

Involve Monitors and Teachers

Nobody has fun at recess if students are feeling excluded, experiencing bullying or social issues, and otherwise not enjoying themselves. One of the best methods for minimizing these issues, the study suggested, was involvement from recess monitors and teachers. While this sounds easy and doable, sometimes schools have to rely on the funds they have which can mean one monitor per many students, leaving them unable to truly play basketball with the kids or to mediate a disagreement amongst students.

Walls says monitors also need specific training to help them identify what they need to look for regarding concerning behaviors, understand what they are observing, and determine what actions to take. Sometimes monitors aren’t trained in these educational aspects, and educators who are trained are being utilized elsewhere in the school during recess time. Walls hopes they would help students who are having difficulty integrating, and teach them social skills such as how to enter a game or approach other students.

Foster Feelings of Belonging and Inclusion

Every child should have the ability to play at recess time, so schools can focus on increasing inclusive aspects of free time. For children with disabilities, Witman Moore says, recess can be a challenge. “It is paramount that there is accessible playground equipment for children with disabilities, including adaptive swings, wheelchair-accessible pathways, and different sensory opportunities,” she says.

In addition, she hopes schools encourage activities far beyond the traditional recess model. “There should be other opportunities based on interest. We are a long way from the days of dodge ball and need to remember that for some students, play is sitting on a lovely bench listening to music or reading a book.” 

Leah Witman Moore

We are a long way from the days of dodge ball and need to remember that for some students, play is sitting on a lovely bench listening to music or reading a book.

— Leah Witman Moore

In addition, taking note of and contributing to solutions regarding playground bullying increases the positive impact of recess, making it a time to let loose and get some physical movement in without increasing emotional stressors.

Witman Moore wants schools to teach empathy throughout the school day, and make sure it is modeled to students for optimal recess success and social emotional learning.

What This Means For You

Recess is a powerful tool for improving social, emotional, and behavioral health for the rest of the school day, and for life outside of school. A recent study revealed the connection, showing improved results for students who had access to clean, fun, and well-supervised areas at recess, and the opposite was true for children who didn't have access to that, or were playing in an unsafe environment. School funding and resources are at the heart of the recess dilemma, as is inequity across the education system. To help your school improve recess, encourage them to have well-trained monitors, do a clean sweep of the area, and to invest in quality play equipment and toys.

1 Source
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  1. Massey WV, Thalken J, Szarabajko A, Neilson L, Geldhof J. Recess quality and social and behavioral health in elementary school students. J School Health. Published online July 7, 2021. doi:10.1111/josh.13065

By Alexandra Frost
Alexandra Frost is a freelance journalist and content marketing writer with a decade of experience, and a passion for health and wellness topics. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, Glamour, Today's Parent, Reader's Digest, Parents, Women's Health, Business Insider, and more.