THE CASE FOR RECESS: Why We Need to Bring Back Free Play

Are children’s physical and mental health and recess related? You bet. Recess is important. It’s the opportunity for children to move their bodies, make new friends, and jump into imaginary worlds. If done correctly, recess can be an invaluable component to fostering healthy child development and creativity at the same time. However, there are some things that need to be done in order for this to happen.

Having a plastic playground that offers little challenge and giving children only fifteen minutes to play on it will not produce the type of sensory, motor, cognitive, and social benefits most teachers and professionals are looking for. In order to improve children’s attention over time, increase strength and coordination, and enhance play and social skills, we need to reevaluate the typical recess environment and capabilities.

This essay emphasizes the importance of creating a recess environment that challenges both the mind and body. Learning does not stop in the classroom. In fact, some of the most important skills—such as learning how to negotiate, trade, create, problem solve, forgive, ask forgiveness, have empathy for others, and more—are acquired through authentic play experiences outdoors. Sensory and motor skills are also refined and strengthened when children play outdoors, laying a strong foundation for attention and other school-readiness abilities. This essay will outline the basic transformations needed to design the ultimate recess environment.

Why the Classic Recess Session Doesn't Work

Many teachers have told me that they shudder when the bell rings for recess time. Why is this? you may ask. You would think that teachers would welcome the break for themselves and also the children. And you’d think that after children get a quick recess session to get their “energy out,” they’d be better prepared to learn when they go indoors, right? Well, in today’s schools this rarely happens. With recess sessions typically lasting only fifteen to twenty minutes a day, kids are anything but calm and collected when they go back indoors. In fact, it’s often the opposite. Voices escalate through the halls. Kids yell and roughhouse. They are now more excitable and silly than before recess. When told to sit, they are fidgeting like crazy.

            The truth is the typical recess session is far from therapeutic. It is overstimulating to many of the senses, underchallenging on the whole, and boring to boot. In short—it fosters chaos.

First of all, having incredibly short recess sessions is not enough time for children to sufficiently move their body in all different directions. Children absolutely need movement in all planes in order to develop a strong vestibular system, or system of balance, which is critical in supporting every other sense in the body and turning the brain on to pay attention. This system needs to be working right in order for children to get organized, control their activity level, regulate their emotions, and to focus. Children need opportunities to go upside down, spin in circles, squat down to play, do cartwheels, roll down the hill, climb up tall structures, and so on. If they aren’t given sufficient time to do this on a daily basis, they won’t develop a strong and fully functioning vestibular system—the foundation for learning. Without sufficient movement opportunities, you can forget about having attentive students.

When kids only have a short recess session, they often resort to simple games like tag or to playing on the equipment they’re given, options that offer little creativity. They simply don’t have time to make friends or dive deep into their imaginations. After many years of observing children playing out in the woods, I know it sometimes takes a good forty-five minutes before children get into “deep” play, the kind of play where they create new worlds and become imaginary pirates, princesses, or warriors. This is the sort of play where children start creating their own games and their own rules. And this is invaluable if we want to foster creativity and problem solving in children—skills that are innately hard to teach in the classroom.

            Most recess sessions take place on flat land, void of slopes, roots, or trees. This does little to challenge the balance and inspire the imagination. There may be brightly colored playground structures for the kids to climb on and play with. But not only do bright colors like red, yellow, and blue overstimulate the visual senses, but the equipment itself does little to challenge the body. They’re closer to the ground than ever before. We’ve shortened swing spans and slides, and taken away merry-go-rounds and teeter-totters altogether. And children aren’t getting the sensory input they did in years past. Sensory input that is critical to developing the senses, which support learning in the classroom. These play areas also lack challenge. The types of challenges children need in order to reach the next developmental milestone.

            No, our recess environments do little to inspire a child’s mind or body to grow and reach their full potential. They only limit, restrict, and overwhelm. It is no wonder our kids are less prepared to learn when they go back indoors. It is time to create some change.

Creating a Therapeutic Recess Environment

            In order to truly foster healthy child development during recess and prepare the child for higher-level learning, we need to rethink and reevaluate the recess environment and conditions. There are four major components to creating a recess session that truly engages and challenges children’s sensory, motor, social, and cognitive skills.

Time

Time is so important. When we don’t even make time for children to play and move about in their natural environments, they become restricted, overworked, and overwhelmed. This is by far the most important component. If you can do nothing else, consider simply giving children adequate amount of active playtime throughout the day—especially outdoors where the senses are fully engaged.

When children are given at least forty-five minutes to play, they have more opportunities to experience a vast range of movements and play opportunities that set the body up for healthy organization and regulation of the senses, emotions, and other essential brain functions. They have time to make new friends. They have time to climb the rock formation. They have time to kneel down in the dirt and dig some holes. They have time to roll down the grassy hill. They have time to roll down the grassy hill again. They have time to play heroes and rescue their friends. They have time to get upset. They have time to make amends. They have time—precious time to be themselves, make mistakes, and then learn from those mistakes.

Space

Children need space away from the adult world on a regular basis. Physical education or participating only in adult-led activities is not enough. They also need time for free play. A child’s neurological system is naturally designed to seek out the sensory, motor, and cognitive challenges it needs on its own. And what those challenges are will vary from one child’s system to the next. Where one child may need to run at full speed, another may need to spin in circles until they get dizzy and fall. Another child may desperately need to swing high in the air in order to regulate their senses and get their body organized again. Still another child may need to squat for a while, playing quietly by herself, before participating in more active and social play. We don’t intuitively know what children need at any given time. It is best to let the child’s body and mind determine what it needs on its own. Adults are there to provide the opportunities, not to control and orchestrate children’s every move.

How much space do children really need at recess time? I recommend keeping out of the children’s direct sight so that you can find out. Let them feel like they are playing without being constantly watched, even if they are. This is their opportunity to play with friends, unhindered by adults’ fears and worries. Let them come up with their own ways to play. It is okay if they experience boredom at first. It takes time and space and lots of practice to learn how to play creatively with other children outdoors.

Healthy Risk-Taking

            Take a good look at your recess environment. Does it offer any kind of challenge to the children? Does it allow children to move freely and frequently? What can be simplified or eliminated as it offers little value to the child’s development? What can be added to offer more age-appropriate risk-taking? Here are some things to consider when planning a recess environment. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money—you’ll just need to be creative.

  1. Try to pick a spot for recess where the landscape naturally challenges the children. For instance, maybe you pick a spot that isn’t level but provides a terrain that varies, which challenges a child’s body to navigate the uneven surfaces. If your recess spot is totally flat, consider bringing in mounds of dirt if you have to.
  2. Bring in some big rocks or small boulders for the children to climb. If you can’t do this, consider adding a jungle gym—one that is high enough to offer children a challenge.
  3. Consider bringing in some fallen trees. Children who can’t climb trees vertically yet can start by climbing a fallen tree horizontally. Make sure to keep the limbs on the trees, so the children have something to hold onto. 
  4. If you have access to a stream or brook, use it! Set up some buckets and planks beside the flowing water that the children can experiment with.
  5. Allow the children to play amongst the trees. Trees offer great value to a recess session. They provide shade, nature, and privacy, and often inspire fort building.
  6. Add a few swings. Rope swings and swings that children can spin on provide great vestibular input and strengthen core muscles in a child’s stomach and back as well—both of which are essential to establish good spatial awareness.

Loose Parts

            When thinking about recess, most people don’t think about loose parts. Loose parts are items that children can move around the playground. They typically don’t have any established purpose and therefore inspire creative play ideas in children. The key to using loose parts is to set them out on the ground without telling the children anything about them, except that they are free to use everything they see. If we give suggestions, this places an idea in the child’s head. Allow the children to come up with their own ideas. They may think of things that you never would have imagined.

Here are some of my favorite loose parts that could easily be added to a recess environment.

  1. Tires. I’ve seen children use them to create seats, forts, vehicles, and more.
  2. Planks. Children often use these when constructing something.
  3. Baskets. You can fill them with items such as shells or pinecones or leave them empty. I like to offer a variety of sizes to inspire children to carry items that become part of their imaginary play.
  4. Long sticks. Children often build with these.
  5. Shears (transparent curtains). Children will use these to design forts or when playing dress-up.

There are many types of loose parts that you can offer children to inspire hours of play outdoors. I recommend following the blog Let the Children Play by Jennifer Kable to get a multitude of ideas.

A Call to Action

      Now you know the problems with the current recess model, and the components of an ideal one. What comes next is advocating for more naturally inspiring and stimulating environments for recess time, to engage children’s senses and challenge their minds and bodies, so they can reap the full therapeutic benefits recess provides. What can you do to create this much-needed change? Bring this important knowledge to the decision makers and urge them to reconsider existing recess policies. This link will provide you with a pre-written letter you can use to talk to superintendents and school boards about the ideal recess setting and length and why these things are important for healthy child development. Children have been restricted for too long. It is time to let them move and play as nature intended once again.

About the author

Angela J. Hanscom is a pediatric occupational therapist and the author of Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children. She is also the founder of TimberNook—an award-winning developmental and nature-based program that has gained international popularity. She holds a master’s degree in occupational therapy, and an undergraduate degree in kinesiology (the study of movement) with a concentration in health fitness. Awarded a “Hometown Hero” by Glamour magazine for her innovative work with TimberNook, Hanscom has also been a frequent contributor to The Washington Post “Answer Sheet” column, and was featured on the NPR education blogs Children & Nature Network and MindShift. Hanscom resides in Barrington, NH.


(Photo credit: TimberNook of the Sandhills)

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