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Quality Recess Gives a Boost to Children’s Mental Health, Study Says

Children running out to recess.
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Key Takeaways

  • Recess offers an opportunity to support the healthy development of children as whole human beings in schools.
  • The quality of recess includes factors such as a safe play environment, sufficient play equipment, supportive adult engagement, student autonomy, and minimal disruptive conflict.
  • Executive functioning, emotional self-control, and adaptive classroom abilities were all impacted by the quality of recess.

Recess is likely to evoke a variety of childhood memories for adults. According to a study published in the Journal of School Health, it has significant impacts on the healthy development of children.

Especially as teachers have had to reimagine their approaches to work during COVID-19, recess provides a meaningful opportunity to reassess how best to support the needs of all students through the lens of play.

While schools may feel pressure to push learning given disruptions from the pandemic, prioritizing recess quality may be beneficial for both children and teachers, given the variety of benefits that healthy child development offers.

The Study

To explore the intersection of recess and emotional, social, and behavioral health, researchers collected data from 26 schools in 4 regions of the U.S., including live observations of recess during the 2018–2019 school year.

Their findings demonstrate that increases in the quality of recess improved the mental health of the children regardless of the school's population, in terms of socioeconomic status, racial backgrounds, ethnic heritage, etc.

Play Is Essential for Children

Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified art therapist at Guidance Teletherapy, says, “Young children learn very differently than adults. They need physical experiences, the ability to interact with peers, and ways to practice expressing their emotions. Through imagination and play, they actively develop the parts of their brains that foster communication, reasoning, and understanding.”

For accessible learning, Landrum highlights the importance of equitable playground experiences for diverse populations and inclusion of trauma-informed care. “Underfunding of schools, especially in diverse communities is a systemic problem that can only be changed when addressing how structures have been put in place that harm BIPOC communities,” she says.

Landrum says, “When staff cannot point youth to playground activities, such as access to balls, chalk, slides, blocks, or other engagement material, it makes it difficult for both students and staff to want to use recess time actively.

“The research also points to the importance of trauma-informed care, a practice that promotes environments of healing and recovery by understanding the impact of trauma, recognizing symptoms of dysregulation, and utilizing active interventions to support these students.”

When staff are trained in trauma-informed care, Landrum explains that they can actively use play to teach youth how to regulate themselves and create self-awareness.

Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT

Underfunding of schools, especially in diverse communities is a systemic problem that can only be changed when addressing how structures have been put in place that harm BIPOC communities.

— Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT

“Youth with trauma backgrounds may not have a clear understanding of pro-social behaviors or how to use play as a learning tool. When staff actively engage in play through a trauma-informed lens, they are empowered enough to adapt play equipment and experiences to foster social-emotional learning and affirming sense of self,” she says.

Landrum says, “For youth who are nonverbal, play allows them to share their world with the people around them in the way they naturally communicate. Even into adulthood, play continues to be an important part of stress reduction, mindfulness building, and general enjoyment. Play is one of the most natural parts of childhood. It is developmentally critical that youth get to process their world through the lens of play.”

While the small sample size is a limitation of this study, it highlights how recess can be improved with simple measures like doing a morning safety sweep, setting up the area for play, training adults on engagement, etc.

As a therapist who works with children and youth, Landrum explains how she had learned that the only way treatment is successful is if play is incorporated into her practice. "As youth's media of play changes, I've specifically focused on ethically applying video games to my sessions. These mediums have given my clients the ability to have a safe space, with control, to explore their emotional experience and heal from trauma, in a structured manner,” she says.

Play Prepares Kids for Adulthood

Behavioral health medical director at Community Health of South Florida, psychiatrist Howard Pratt, DO, says, "The whole thing about having kids involved in play isn’t really about them being the next great athlete of their time, but it’s much more about building self-esteem and it teaches them how to fall and get back up. And it’s much better when a person learns how to do that at eight years old than when they are 25 or older."

Especially given the substantial impact of the pandemic on children, Pratt explains that a lot of them have been cooped up for months, so they should be given all the support necessary, including making recess a priority as it helps kids develop. “Just like this study indicates the importance of the involvement of adults in recess, it’s just as important that parents are involved in fostering this aspect of play in their kids’ lives,” he says.

Howard Pratt, DO

Just like this study indicates the importance of the involvement of adults in recess, it’s just as important that parents are involved in fostering this aspect of play in their kids’ lives.

— Howard Pratt, DO

Pratt says, “If parents think back on their most fond moments in elementary school, they may find that these memories occurred during recess. That’s when you build bonds with friends, and that propels people positively. You want your kids to have those same kinds of experiences.”

If you have a child who is hesitant to participate in recess, Pratt explains that you need to find out why. “Many times, this could be something simple like a child who has an allergy or is embarrassed about having to use an inhaler. But it’s important to understand why and work to resolve this. More than likely, it’s a problem that educators and mental health professionals have seen before, so there may be a ready solution,” he says. 

Pratt says, “When I consider the kids that are older than the kids in this study, the kids who wanted to continue their recess and play experiences, they got into sports or other after-school activities, and they tend to do better than others. They develop a second family to add to their support system and tend to be in better physical condition, have higher self-esteem, and are able to deal with stress much better than other children.”

What This Means For You

As this research demonstrates, recess holds a lot of potential benefits for students and staff alike. By investing in a safe play environment, adequate play equipment, and supportive adult supervision, schools can prioritize the healthy development of children. Increasing recess quality offers an opportunity to promote more equitable learning.

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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