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The Case for School Recess

Recess time benefits kids physically, socially, and academically.


Updated December 31, 2012

Jumping rope during school recess, photo by Mel Yates

Jump rope gets kids moving during school recess

Mel Yates

Ask kids what their favorite part of the school day is, and very often you'll hear "Recess!" It may sound frivolous, but school recess actually offers many important benefits to kids, tweens, and even teens. Taking a break during the school day, even a short one, can improve students' learning skills and memory. The free play that takes place during recess builds kids' social skills. And of course, recess offers a chance for kids to add valuable physical activity time to their day.

School recess can even help improve kids' behavior. A 2009 study of more than 10,000 third graders showed that the kids who got at least one recess period a day (lasting 15 minutes or longer) had better classroom behavior than those who got less recess time or no recess at all.

How Much School Recess Do Kids Get?

One study of 47 states, 690 school districts, and 1761 schools in the United States, published in 2012, found only 8 states that had laws encouraging daily recess. But students in those states were much more likely to have at least 20 minutes of recess per day than students in other states. We know that the amount of recess time kids get decreases as they grow older. Recess is also less available at urban schools and those that serve children of lower socioeconomic status.

And the study above also found that schools with more recess devoted less time to physical education. This suggested to the authors that "schools are substituting one form of physical activity for another rather than providing the recommended amount of both," the study authors wrote. The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) recommends that all elementary school students have at least one recess period per day, lasting at least 20 minutes. NASPE also suggests a minimum of 150 minutes per week of physical education time (for elementary school) or 225 minutes per week (for middle and secondary school).

How School Recess Helps Students

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement on recess in January, 2013. It highlights these benefits of recess:

  • Whether recess happens indoors or out, research shows that after a break, children are "more attentive and more productive" in the classroom. This is true even if students spend most of their recess time socializing. And it's true for teens as well as younger kids.
  • Recess is a big opportunity for peer interactions. As they play (especially free, unstructured, child-led play), children learn to communicate. They have to practice important social skills like negotiation, cooperation, sharing, problem-solving, and self-control.
  • Kids don't always exercise vigorously during recess. But even light to moderate activity is beneficial. It offsets some of the sedentary time kids spend at school and can help kids achieve the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity. (One 2012 study found that some kids took almost half of their daily steps in just one 15-minute recess.)
  • Scheduling recess before lunch instead of after provides extra advantages. There is less food waste, because kids don't rush through lunch to get out to the playground. And they're better behaved both at lunch and in the classroom later.

What Pediatricians Recommend

The AAP's policy statement strongly supports school recess, and urges schools not to cut back on recess time for academic or punitive reasons. "Safe and well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it," the statement notes.

The AAP also lists three "critical components" of safe recess: environmental conditions, well-maintained playground equipment, and well-trained supervisors. "Although schools should ban games and activities that are unsafe, they should not discontinue recess altogether just because of concerns connected with child safety. There are measures schools can take to address these concerns and protect children while still preserving play during recess," the statement says.

In other words, just let kids play—every day!


Barros RM, Silver EJ, Stein REK: School Recess and Group Classroom Behavior. Pediatrics, Vol. 123 No. 2, February 2009.

Slater SJ, Nicholson L et al.: The Impact of State Laws and District Policies on Physical Education and Recess Practices in a Nationally Representative Sample of US Public Elementary Schools. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Vol. 166 No. 4, April 2012.

American Academy of Pediatrics Council on School Health: Policy Statement: The Crucial Role of Recess in School. Pediatrics, Vol. 131 No. 1, January 2013.

Erwin H, Abel M et al.: The Contribution of Recess to Children's School-Day Physical Activity. Journal of Physical Activity and Health, Vol. 9 No. 3, March 2012.

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