Recess – Recharging the Mind and Body Through Play

  • Moira Sullivan, M.S., O.T.R./L

                With the beginning of the new school year, children’s opportunities to play are not as plentiful as in the summer months.  In the fall, the focus turns to academic learning: reading, writing, math, science, etc., all of which are important skills.

                Equally important is recess time, where children can go outside and play.  This time is often seen as being less important and many schools are cutting back on recess.  When children get home they have homework to do, which further cuts into play time.  Not only is play important for children’s learning and development, it improves their physical and mental health.  Fully one-third of children in California were considered overweight or obese in 2010, an alarming statistic.  Equally alarming is the finding that only 18% of adolescents get the recommended one hour of physical activity per day ( Nationally, obesity rates were four times higher among children 6 to 11 years old, and three times higher among those ages 12 to 19, than they were three decades ago. Since patterns of activity are set at a young age, providing time for active play at recess will help ensure that children stay more active and fit throughout their lives.

                Recent conversations I had with several friends revealed that the schools know this as well.  When my friends’ children were doing STAR testing and they needed to be more alert and focused, many of their schools gave the children extra recess time.  Some even let the children chew gum in class, another method of increasing focus.  Play at recess allows the brain to have the time it needs to sort and make sense of the academic learning children are absorbing.  In addition, recess builds these skills:

    Social Problem Solving – children make up games, make up rules, abide by those rules or deal with the consequences of not abiding by them.

    Imagination and Creativity – not only by making up the games and rules, but by using items found in the environment in novel ways.  A stick becomes a baseball bat, a vine becomes a jump rope, grass gets woven into chains, etc.

    Learning and Absorption – movement helps to calm and organize the body and mind for improved attention and focus.  This helps in all social and academic areas.

    Better Physical Health – Movement activities help children lose excessive weight while building strength, endurance, balance, and coordination.

    Improved Classroom Behavior – exercise helps the release and regulation of a combination of neurotransmitters, resulting in stress and anxiety reduction.

                Lately schools have been under increasing financial pressure.  Administrators may feel that recess is less important than more traditional classes, or they may be forced by budget constraints to cut back in some way, and recess is often on the chopping block. As parents, we can help our children by giving them free play time after school and on weekends.  Although I’m sure many children will disagree with me, this does not include video game time, unless it’s something that gets them up and moving, as well as interacting socially, such as Wii Fit.  Active movement is the key.  And we can support our school staff by letting them know we appreciate the importance of recess, and their efforts to preserve this important time.


    Moira Sullivan, occupational therapist, Owner/Director of Whole Kids Therapy, writes about motor skills and sensory integration challenges.

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