4 Reasons More Recess Helps Kids Do Better in School

Principals say children’s behavior and academic achievement improve with more recess.


There's one thing that's almost guaranteed to make your child do better in school: more recess. Not only do children do better academically if they get outside to play, but they have fewer behavior problems. That's the word from none other than the principals of America, who know all there is to know about bad behavior at school.

I write this having just returned from a stint as recess volunteer at my daughter's elementary school, where I zipped up coats, told a half-dozen first-grade boys they needed to split up for five minutes because I was tired of seeing them try to rip each other's arms off, and talked with another young lad who was heartbroken because the girl of his dreams refused to play with him. Despite this, the playground was a happy scene, with children running, shouting, throwing balls, and generally being rowdy on a sunny winter's day.

Recess has almost disappeared from the curriculum at many schools, edged out by more math and reading work as schools push to raise scores on standardized tests. One in four elementary schools no longer provides daily recess for all grades. But a growing body of research, including a 2009 study of 11,000 third graders published in Pediatrics, shows that adding more play to the day, not less, improves the likelihood of better test scores and behavior.

The latest news supporting recess comes from a survey of 1,951 principals or deputy, assistant, or vice principals polled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It found that: 

  • Recess has a positive impact on academic achievement.
  • Student listen better after recess and are more focused in class.
  • Recess has a beneficial effect on children's social development.
  • Recess improves children's well-being overall.
  •  The news wasn't all good. The principals said most of their discipline problems happened during a recess or lunch break and said that they would like to have more staff to monitor the playground, better equipment, and training in playground management. Sounds like a great to-do list for the PTA. I'd throw in how great it would be to see more dads helping out with recess. I rarely see men on the playground when I volunteer, and it would be a wonderful time for dads and sons to play sports, roughhouse, or be goofy together. "There's really nothing wrong with recess that can't be fixed by what's right with recess," says Jill Vialet, founder of Playworks. Vialet's organization, which trains children in constructive recess activities in 10 cities, is a sponsor of the new study. 

    Check out this list of 10 ways that play will make your children (and you) happier and healthier, including the fact that rough-and-tumble play teaches children how to cooperate and play fair. Turns out those boys who were scuffling on the playground today were learning good things!