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The 1950s were something of a “golden era” of play. […] Schools had multiple recesses throughout the day, the concept of homework barely existed, and the school year itself was about 4-5 weeks shorter.

Fast forward to today…..

American kids now spend an average of just 4-7 minutes a day on unstructured outdoor play, and elementary schools across the country are reducing or entirely eliminating recess.

I remember recess being a common staple when I was younger. I loved playing hopscotch and drawing masterpieces with sidewalk chalk. I even dabbled in relays, tag, and occasional climbing on the monkey bars or swinging on the swing set. All in all, that time of day was a great release, and for many, a time where fond memories were made. As a middle school and high school student, we didn’t have recess, but longer lunch periods provided more room for that unstructured time. Catching up with your friends, playing a game of basketball, practicing your band instrument, or simply reading your favorite book were vital means of daily de-stressing as a teen.

Over the years, recess and time to decompress have been placed on the back burner in our daily school schedules. But why? While there are a plethora of factors that have contributed to this decline, the increase in technology and high-stakes standardized testing are two of the main culprits.

More Instructional Time Does Not Equate to More Learning

Regularly, campuses find themselves sacrificing recess to scour for more instructional time while also chasing after dreams of innovation and STEM academia. But does more time in the classroom equal more learning time? I beg to differ.

Some experts have suggested that taping our children’s eyeballs open and forcing them to consume data without rest is actually not the optimal way to learn. In fact, young learners are capable of absorbing and accomplishing far more in considerably less time when given properly allotted breaks.

We know this! We know the benefits of play. It seems to be a fact we openly accept in the young developmental stages. We use play to teach babies how to speak, recognize colors, shapes, and other concepts. We use play to teach social skills and expand thinking and creativity. However, we tend to abandon these methods or decrease their frequency as students become more immersed in the structures of school.

We Can’t Keep Ignoring the Research on Play

We have the science to back up the benefits of play, yet continue to ignore what has been studied and proven. In turn, students’ mental health is suffering at increasing rates and test scores continue to decline.

“I believe there is one noteworthy issue that has contributed to this mental health crisis like no other: Recess and play are on the endangered species list in our public schools.”

-Dr. Peter Gray

Time, testing, and technology have contributed to some of the disappearance of play in our schools. However, it’s an ironic illusion that less recess improves academics, and frankly, we’re playing with fire. Even though research proves that recess and play increase focus, wellness, productivity, and reduces stress, we are placing students in school environments that lack the elements of play necessary to harvest these attributes. In order to make instructional gains and support well-adjusted students, we cannot keep ignoring the research on play. Time and effort must be utilized to create spaces where students can thrive. Often unrealistic expectations are placed on our students. Many adults are unable to endure long periods of time sitting without breaks and times to decompress. Our attention spans are becoming shorter as well as our inability to digest large chunks of information at a time. In turn, the push for longer, sustained periods of work (without breaks) is impacting our overall mental health. We live in a country where busyness is a trophy that is valued over rest and rejuvenation, which leaves us overwhelmed, stressed, and frustrated. While there is a push to increase awareness around burnout and stress for adults, we often forget about the children. This amnesia, often selective, is dismantling the emotional well-being of our students.

The Importance of Play For All

Just as we need oxygen to breathe, our brains need play to function well. Ironically, the power of play is crossing over into the adult world while we lament its absence in schools. Presently, there is a growing desire to incorporate play into adult work days. Outside the education world, well-known companies are seeing the value and importance of play in workspaces.

Google is rated #5 out of 50 of the best places to work because they have figured out the science to productivity: play.

Google’s various offices and campuses around the globe reflect the company’s overarching philosophy, which is nothing less than “to create the happiest, most productive workplace in the world,” according to a Google spokesman, Jordan Newman.

Lego play stations, ladders to climb from floor to floor, art stations where employees can scribble on walls, and treadmills instead of desk chairs are just a few of the elements one would find walking through Google’s offices. Google has discovered what science continues to tell us about the importance of play: it increases focus, productivity, and creativity (among other benefits). Google is intentional about how one’s environment affects his or her work:

In keeping with a company built on information, this seeming spontaneity is anything but. Everything has been researched and is backed by data.

Other top-rated companies, such as Facebook and Microsoft, have also discovered the power of play and utilize its benefits to shape the success of their work.

So, if great strides are taken to ensure that adults have segments of play built into their workspaces and day (for the good of productivity and the brain), why are we continuing to eliminate this crucial element from students? Why doesn’t our education system embody the same goal “ to create the happiest, most productive classrooms in the world?” While there are lots of moving parts to those answers, the irony is that we desire to create well-rounded students who are socially adjusted and academically successful. However, we have an increased amount of students who lack healthy social skills, are unable to cope with their emotions, relate, and collaborate with others, while regressing academically. Recently, there has been a myriad of reports on the rise of violent behavior in elementary schools across the country. This rise of aggression and dangerous behavior hinges on the effects of decreased recess/play time in schools.

Children who misbehave at school are often punished by having to stay inside at recess, but new research shows that giving children recess actually helps solve behavioral problems in class.

Denying recess, especially as a punishment, has not proven to be effective.

It doesn’t work. Experimental studies and anecdotal evidence point out that in any given school, it’s generally the same children who tend to have their recess withheld, indicating that the threat is ineffective. And, as Eric Jensen, author of several books on brain-based learning, tells us, remaining seated for periods longer than 10 minutes “reduces our awareness of physical and emotional sensations and increases fatigue,” resulting in reduced concentration and discipline problems. Demanding that children move less and sit more is counterproductive. Research, and our own common sense, tells us we should be doing the opposite. -Rae Pica

Privilege or Necessity?

In order to value the benefits of play, we must take recess off of the pedestal of privilege. Currently, recess is a carrot, dangled over the heads of students as a precious prize that could be lost (usually based on behavior). However, recess should not be utilized as a bargaining chip; it’s far too important. In the article, “Why Kids Need Recess,” author Rae Pica outlined seven benefits of play:

  • Kids learn better and faster when their efforts are distributed, rather than concentrated.
  • Regular breaks boost productivity.
  • Recess increases focus.
  • Natural light improves wellness.
  • Recess reduces stress and serves as an outlet for students.
  • Recess develops social skills.
  • Recess allows for exercise (which all students need).
  • Physical activity feeds the brain.

Our students come to us with a variety of experiences, circumstances, home lives, and even their own concrete barriers to grow through. Incorporating regular breaks throughout the day allows students to preserve and regulate their own self-care and mental health. We are constantly seeing the effects of the lack of self-care, even among teachers. The term itself (self-care) points us to a much-needed plane of awareness. If adults have to learn to regulate their own self-care, then why on earth are we not teaching and modeling this for students? How are young minds supposed to digest large amounts of information for long periods of time without an outlet? If our intentions are truly to help mold well-adjusted, well-rounded students, then we must make play a priority.

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.

-Mr. Fred Rogers

Author and kindergarten teacher, Vivian Gussin Paley, details the true power in play for children:

They are in truth inventing abstract thinking. The act of stepping out of oneself through imaginary play. Inventing reading, writing, and arithmetic, in an earlier, primitive form…for they are inventing and reinventing themselves as thinking people before the world tells them what to think. They do this as they literally play around with ideas.

I would also suggest that as children grow older, their need for play evolves, not decreases. Play is simply time to allow yourself and your brain the space to BE. Explore. Rest. Break. Mend. Think. Create. Wonder. Imagine. Process. These actions are too significant to abandon and we ALL benefit from these elements.

While teachers and administrators have much to juggle, including the need to make sure all students are succeeding, it may be more important than ever to make sure kids have time to play, dream, and bolster themselves against the rising rates of anxiety and depression.

There is power in play for all and we must protect this component, at all costs, as it is essential to learning.

In fact, play IS learning.


If you’re interested in learning about how to incorporate more play into your classroom or day, check out these resources:


LaToya Morrison is an Assistant Principal of Instruction in Austin, Texas. Previous to this position,...

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1 Comment

  1. Your article highlights The need for play throughput life. Invoking what early childhood development specialist know throughout the learning spectrum would be beneficial for learners , teachers and administration.

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