Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Importance of Recess

I recently submitted a research study I conducted over the past school year to the National Association of School Psychologist's (NASP) Conference 2012. I'm not going to tell you all the findings but I wanted to present you with my literature review on the importance of recess in schools. 

Teacher Perceptions of the Effectiveness of Structured Recess Programming at an Urban Charter School

Erika Johnson
Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology

            The term recess refers to a scheduled break during the school day allowing children to participate in unstructured, free play (Pellegrini & Bohn, 2005; National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS-SDE), 2001; Jarrett, Maxwell, Dickerson, Hoge, Davies, & Yetley, 1998; Pellegrini & Bjorklund, 1997; Pellegrini & Smith, 1993). Recess is an important aspect of the school day in countries all over the world, not just the United States. In the British schools, students receive a recess break on three separate occasions. Students are given a fifteen-minute break in the morning and afternoon, as well as an eighty- to ninety-minute break at lunchtime (Pellegrini & Bohn, 2005; Jarrett, et al., 1998; Pellegrini & Smith, 1993). In Japanese schools, students are given ten- to twenty-minute breaks after every forty-five minute instructional period (Jarrett, et al., 1998). In Taiwan, students are provided with multiple breaks during the school day and are allotted a five-minute transition time between instruction. In the United States, however, there are no such guidelines for frequency and duration of recess (Ramstetter, Murray, & Garner, 2010; Barros, Silver, & Stein, 2009; Pellegrini & Bohn, 2005; NAECS-SDE, 2001; Pellegrini & Smith, 1993). The amount of time students are given for recess varies between regions, states, districts, and individual schools.

The variability of recess periods in the United States has become more important since the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) (2001). NCLB holds schools in the United States accountable for the achievement of the students being served. In response to the additional academic demands, many schools have chosen to cut back or eliminate recess all together, and increase instructional time (Barros, Silver, & Stein, 2009; National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education, 2001). While “83% to 88% of children in public elementary schools have recess,” the frequency and duration is on a steady decline (National Center for Education Statistics, 2006; as cited by Barros, Silver, & Stein, 2009, pg. 432). Those advocating against the implementation of recess make the following arguments: (1) recess leads to higher levels of aggression and antisocial behavior (Jarrett, et al., 1998; Pellegrini & Smith, 1993), (2) eliminating recess provides more time for classroom instruction (Pellegrini & Bohn, 2005; Jarrett, et al., 1998; Pellegrini & Smith, 1993), (3) recess disrupts student work patterns, increases their excitement, and decreases attention (Jarrett, et al., 1998; Pellegrini & Smith, 1993), and (4) recess decreases student safety (Ramstetter, Murray, Garner, 2010; Ridgway, et al., 2003).

            The National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS-SDE) (2001) published a position statement identifying the benefits of recess for children, specifically the developmental domains that are most greatly impacted through play.  First, the social development of a student improves through the acquisition of skills in cooperation, sharing, and conflict resolution during unstructured, free play (Ramstetter, Murray, Garner, 2010; NAECS-SDE, 2001). Pellegrini and Bohn (2005) argue that eliminating or minimizing recess decreases the opportunities for students to socialize and interact with their peers. Emotionally, students begin to gain self-control, learn self-acceptance, and learn to express themselves (Ramstetter, Murray, Garner, 2010; NAECS-SDE, 2001).  Recess allows students to learn through hands-on experiences and exploratory play, which enhances their overall cognitive development (Ramstetter, Murray, & Garner, 2010; NAECS-SDE, 2001). Pellegrini and Bohn (2005) comment that a playful, unstructured break is important to maximizing performance by reducing “cognitive interference.” Cognitive interference is described as the “continued build-up of interference with repeated performance of highly focused tasks, even if the tasks are different” (Pellegrini & Bohn, 2005, p. 14; Pellegrini & Bjorklund, 1997). Thus, if students are required to remain sedentary for extended periods of time, their brains become overloaded, which decreases performance and attention. Finally, the actual physical movement of recess fosters physical growth and improves neurological connections, which influences the encoding, retention, and retrieval of information (Ramstetter, Murray, Garner, 2010; NAECS-SDE, 2001).

Proponents of recess argue that by implementing a break in the school day, students’ attention improves and support this view with three theories. The first theory is known as the surplus energy theory (NAECS-SDE, 2001; Jarrett, et al., 1998; Pellegrini & Smith, 1993). The surplus energy theory suggests that as one remains in a sedentary activity there is a build-up of surplus energy, which requires an opportunity to “blow off steam” (Jambor, 1994, as cited in NAECS-SDE, 2001; Jarrett, et al., 1998; Pellegrini & Smith, 1993). However, empirical evidence suggesting the validity of this theory is lacking (Jarrett, et al., 1998; Pellegrini & Smith, 1993). The second theory, novelty-arousal theory, proposes that individuals benefit from a change of pace in their overall functioning (Jambor, 1994, as cited in NAECS-SDE, 2001; Jarrett, et al., 1998; Pellegrini & Smith, 1993). By remaining involved in a sedentary activity of school work, students become habituated and seek change, which may result in off-task behavior and inattention (Ramstetter, Murray, Garner, 2010; NAECS-SDE, 2001; Jarrett, et al., 1998). The final theory is massed versus distributed practice, which suggests that spacing material into shorter intervals with breaks allows students to have better performance outcomes than if presented in a concentrated form (Jarrett, et al., 1998; Dempster, 1988, as cited in Pellegrini & Bjorklund, 1997). Those advocating for implementation believe that recess provides students with a chance to relax, socialize with peers, and come back to the classroom refreshed, all of which benefit students (Ramstetter, Murray, Garner, 2010; Pellegrini & Bohn, 2005; NAECS-SDE, 2001).

Review of Relevant Research 
In response to the debate over the importance of recess, empirical studies concerning its significance have been conducted in an effort to demonstrate the validity and necessity of recess, and its influence on classroom behavior. In an attempt to demonstrate this influence, Ridgway and colleagues (2003) performed a study to investigate its effect on students with and without attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The study consisted of three second grade students and three second grade students who served as their matched controls. The pairs were observed in alternating fashion in their classrooms using ten-second partial time-sampling, for a total of ten-minutes (Ridgway, et al., 2003). Their behavior was coded as off-task, inappropriate vocalizations, being out of their seat, fidgetiness, and playing with an object (Ridgway, et al., 2003). Before recess was introduced the students were observed for three days to establish a baseline (Ridgway, et al., 2003). From the baseline data the researchers were able to determine at which point in the day inappropriate behavior increased significantly (Ridgway, et al., 2003). Once the restlessness time point was identified, researchers implemented an alternating recess block (i.e., one day of recess, one day of no recess). Students were observed immediately before the recess time block and immediately following, on both recess and non-recess days (Ridgway, et al., 2003). Observations continued until each student was observed three times per condition.

The results indicate that inappropriate behavior was more frequent post-recess on non-recess days for students with ADHD and their matched controls, and continued to increase throughout the course of the day (Ridgway, et al., 2003). On days when recess was implemented there was a reduction in the amount of inappropriate behavior exhibited by all students in the sample (Ridgway, et al., 2003). In addition, the progressive increase in inappropriate behaviors did not occur on the recess days (Ridgway, et al., 2003). While it is important to note that this is very small sample, which does not necessarily allow for generalization of results, Ridgway, et al.’s study (2003) demonstrates that there is potential in providing a recess break to all students, those with ADHD and those without.

            A study by Jarrett, et al. (1998) also used an alternating schedule of recess for students in his sample as a way to reduce the anticipation factor associated with recess and classroom behavior. The participants were students from two different fourth grade classrooms. Prior to the study both classrooms already received structured physical education three days per week. Researchers chose to implement a recess block on one of the two “free days” for twenty-minutes (i.e., one day of recess, one day of no recess) (Jarrett, et al., 1998). Classroom behavior data was collected on students post-recess for a total of six sessions. As a result of logistics, researchers were only able to collect pre-recess data on one classroom (Jarrett, et al., 1998). Classroom behaviors were recorded using time interval sampling. A student was observed for five seconds and their behavior was coded as work (“W”), fidgety (“F”), or listless (“L”) (Jarrett, et al., 1998). A cumulative percentage was calculated for each child, in each condition, after the six observations for pre-recess and post-recess, where applicable.

The results demonstrate that overall, work increased post-recess and students were less fidgety; listless behavior did not differ between the two conditions (Jarrett, et al., 1998). On non-recess days, when students were required to stay engaged in the curriculum, researchers found an increase in fidgetiness and off-task behavior (Jarrett, et al., 1998). According to Jarrett, et al. (1998), it appears recess had a renewing effect on the students, decreasing their off-task behavior to levels below pre-recess data. Jarrett, et al. (1998) commented that although the data collection window was narrow, the results do suggest that the long-term implementation of recess may have a positive impact on academic achievement, by increasing work behaviors and decreasing fidgetiness. This argument is in opposition to those in favor of eliminating recess on the grounds that it impedes on instruction time and creates disruption (Pellegrini & Bohn, 2005; Jarrett, et al., 1998; Pellegrini & Smith, 1993).

A final study on recess utilized data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-1999 (ECLS-K). Barros, Silver, and Stein (2009) performed a secondary analysis examining the duration of recess and its effect on classroom behavior. The study used data from third-graders and separated the children into two levels. The first level currently received no recess or a minimal break defined as less than five days per week or a break five days per week for less than fifteen-minutes (Barros, Silver, & Stein, 2009). The second level was the “some recess group.” This group had five sublevels, all of which received recess daily, but varied in frequency (i.e., once per day versus two or more breaks per day) and duration (e.g., one- to fifteen-minutes, sixteen- to thirty-minutes, and greater than thirty-minutes) (Barros, Silver, & Stein, 2009). Classroom teachers filled out a questionnaire regarding classroom characteristics and physical education participation, and completed a Teacher Rating of Classroom Behavior (TRCB) (Barros, Silver, & Stein, 2009). The physical education data identified the amount of physical activity students with no recess were receiving.

The results demonstrate that students’ classroom behavior was more positively rated on the TRCB measure in the some recess group compared to students who had no recess or minimal recess (Barros, Silver, & Stein, 2009). Upon further analysis, the researchers found that there was no difference in TRCB scores between the five subgroups of the some recess category (Barros, Silver, & Stein, 2009). This indicates that regardless of how long students receive a recess break (e.g. fifteen- to thirty-minutes), it appears that their classroom behavior improves, which supports the implementation of recess. The study also took demographics into account in examining which students were more likely to receive less recess. The demographics indicate that children without recess were more likely to live in a medium/large city, live in the South, attend public school, come from a lower income family, have lower levels of parental education, and be Hispanic or black (Barros, Silver, & Stein, 2009). These results are of particular interest for the present study, as the participants live in and around the city,  attend a school located in a city that is 68% black/African American and 27% Hispanic, and have not had recess prior to the 2010-2011 academic school year.

Present Study
Previous research has focused on the benefits of unstructured recess and classroom behavior.  More recently, organizations such as PlayWorks have developed structured recess programs, which aim to improve the social, emotional, and physical well-being of students through organized games that maintain student safety (Harvard Family Research Project, 2007). The Harvard Family Research Project (2007) conducted a study using a structured recess program at an elementary school in Boston, Massachusetts. The study found that students improved their skills to resolve conflicts, cooperate, handle competition, and inclusiveness, many of which are goals of unstructured recess (Harvard Family Research Project, 2007). While the idea of structured recess appears to “undermine many of the social, emotional, cognitive, and even physical benefits of recess” (Ramstetter, Murray, & Garner, 2010), the present study considers it to be a more viable options than eliminating recess, especially in communities that are presently eliminating recess (i.e., low-income cities). The present study will examine primary school and elementary school teacher perceptions of the effectiveness of a structured recess program, specifically PlayWorks, on classroom behavior in an urban charter school in Boston, Massachusetts.  The researcher makes the following hypotheses: (1) teachers will report a reduction in off-task behavior (i.e., fidgetiness, passivity/inattention, calling out) post-recess compared to pre-recess behaviors, (2) teachers will report that structured recess programming promotes social development, and (3) teachers will have a positive perception of the necessity of recess break as an aid to managing classroom behavior.

  • Barros, R. M., Silver, E. J., & Stein, R. E. K. (2009). School recess and group classroom behavior. Pediatrics, 123(2), 431-436.
  • Boston Renaissance Charter Public School. (2010). Retrieved on 21 March 2011 from website
  • Harvard Family Research Project. (2007). Evaluation report: Case study of the first year of Sports4Kids at the Ohrenberger Elementary School in Boston, Massachusetts, 2006-2007 school year. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Graduate School of Education. Available at Accessed 14 February 2011.
  • Jarrett, O. S., Maxwell, D. M., Dickerson, C., Hoge, P., Davies, G., & Yetley, A. (1998). Impact of recess on classroom behavior: Group effects and individual differences. Journal of Educational Research, 92(2), 121-126.
  • National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education. (2001). Recess and the importance of play. A position statement on young children and recess Denver, CO: Colorado State Department of Education. Available at Accessed on 14 February 2011.
  • Pellegrini, A.D., & Bohn, C.M. (2005). The role of recess in children’s cognitive performance and school adjustment. Educational Researcher, 34, 13-19.
  • Pellegrini, A. D., & Smith, P. K. (1993). School recess: Implications for education and development. Review of Educational Research, 63(1), 51-67.
  • Pellegrini, A. D., & Bjorklund, D. F. (1997). The role of recess in children's cognitive performance. Educational Psychologist, 32(1), 35-40.
  • Ramstetter, C. L., Murray, R., & Garner, A. S. (2010). The crucial role of recess in schools. The Journal of School Health, 80(11), 517-526.
  • Ridgway, A., Northup, J., Pellegrini, A., LaRue, R., & Hightsoe, A. (2003). Effects of recess on the classroom behavior of children with and without attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. School Psychology Quarterly, 18(3), 253-268.
  • Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (2007). Recess Rules: Why the Undervalued Playtime May Be America’s Best Investment for Healthy Kids and Healthy Schools Report. Princeton, NJ: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Available at: Accessed on 14 February 2011.

What are your thoughts on recess? How does your school implement recess? Is it a priority? What strategies does the school use to ensure safety?

Obviously, please be sure to give credit where credit is due. As I cited the many researchers before me, please do the same if you use information presented above. Thank you!

Until next thyme,

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