Recess: Creating an Environment for Daily Play and Activity

By Sarah Henris, Environment Specialist

Recess offers students a necessary break from academic classes. It gives children and youth time to rest, play, imagine, think, move and socialize. The National Institute of Medicine recommends that recess provide physical activity beyond a school’s curricular physical education program.

Bayville Primary School Assistant Principal Dorothy McManus explains “Students need activities and equipment at varying activity levels to ensure all students are offered a break that is both an energy releasing and calming time.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons. Recess helps young children develop and strengthen their social skills, including communication, negotiation, cooperation, collaboration and problem solving. After recess, students are more attentive and better able to perform cognitively.

So how can we, as parents, caregivers, educators and PTA volunteer leaders, ensure our schools create or recreate a recess environment benefitting all students?

  1. Learn about the current recess practices at your school
  2. Set up meetings to share what is important in a quality recess program
  3. Speak up, ask for change when change is necessary to improve recess in your school

Consider the following questions when reviewing the recess program in your school.

Meet with your school administrators, district wellness committee, and Board of Education to learn about current the recess policies and practices in place. What are your school’s vision, goals, and objectives for recess? Does your school have a formal school recess plan? Which of the district’s goals for recess are included in your district’s wellness plan? Do the recess plans/policies reflect the national and state standards for recess programs, in addition to offering high quality physical education classes? If the community would like to offer recommendations to amend or increase recess standards, what is the process?

Make sure safe spaces for outdoor and indoor recess is included. All activities should be highly supervised by trained staff and volunteers. Ask about your school’s protocols for recess. Do they include protocols for medical emergencies, playground safety, conflict resolution, lining up, walking to and from recess areas, moving between specific activities, teaching new games or activities, handling disciplinary problems and communications? Is there a protocol for reporting repairs for recess spaces, facilities and playground structures? Who is responsible for conducting daily inspections of the recess areas? Does the school’s student handbook include rules about recess and playground safety?

Check that your school provides a combination of opportunities for student activities and games. Do they have physical activity equipment, playground markings, physical activity zones and planned structured games? Does your school’s activity equipment include items that can be used by students with varying abilities, including those with disabilities? How do students learn about participating in these activities? Is enough physical activity equipment, such as jump ropes, hula-hoops, beanbags and balls, available for students? What supervised unstructured activities are made available for students as alternatives for physical activities? Are quiet or indoor activities offered to students? How are students given a choice of what activities to participate in? How does your school make board games, cards, books and art supplies available? Does your school use student leaders to set up and lead activities? Is there an established process for funding, inspecting, maintaining and replenishing activity equipment?

Speak up! It is ok to talk about ways to improve recess. It is ok to offer insight that may not have been considered from your viewpoint. It is ok to ask for changes in policy, practice and protocol when you feel a certain aspect of the current practice could be tweaked to improve recess in your schools. If not you, then who will ask the questions that lead to improving the lives of our children?

For more information on creating a recess environment, check out resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Healthy Schools website and SHAPE America—Society of Health and Physical Educators Strategies for Recess website.