Recess periods are a great opportunity for free play and physical activity for young students. Many of us have fond memories of getting out of the classroom and enjoying a break on the playground with friends and classmates.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) views recess as an essential part of a child’s school day, citing its physical, emotional, social, and cognitive benefits. Further, the AAP recommends that recess should:

– Serve as an addition rather than a substitute to physical education classes;

– Involve free and unstructured play or activity, whether indoors or outdoors;

Never be taken away as punishment.

The AAP also notes that minimizing or eliminating recess entirely can have a negative impact on students’ academic achievement. Accordingly, some states have instituted mandatory recess in schools.

New research on recess

“Kids are inherently wired to play and they need recess,” said William Massey, assistant professor at Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “But we can’t just think of recess in terms of having it or not having it. Recess can be good for child development but it also can be an absolute disaster if not done well.”

Massey is the lead author of a recent study exploring the factors that contribute to a high-quality recess experience from a child development standpoint. He and his co-authors developed a 17-item assessment instrument called the Great Recess Framework – Observational Tool (GRF-OT) to observe and rate the recess experience in schools.

The researchers tested the framework tool, collecting data in the fall of 2016 from 649 individual outdoor recess periods held at 495 schools from 22 urban and metropolitan areas in the United States.

Defining a quality recess experience

Through the course of the study, researchers identified some crucial factors that can make or break recess:

– Smooth transitions to and from the recess period;

– Access to and plenty of choices in play equipment and games;

– Independent conflict resolution with peers;

– Little violence or bullying;

– Quality engagement between students and adult supervisors (e.g. adults joining games and actively encouraging interaction).

That last item appears to be especially important. “Our data suggests that engaged adults are critical to the flow of a high-quality recess,” said Massey.

Aiming to achieve more widespread use of their recess assessment tool in schools, the researchers hope to pinpoint additional trends and patterns, identify what recess practices are working best across the country, and track how students’ academic and behavioral performance is influenced by good and bad recess sessions.