Why Walking Laps at Recess Time Isn't a Good Idea

I was in the middle of feeding my baby boy, when the phone rang. “I need your help,” the person on the other line said. It was an old friend of mine. “Our school is making it mandatory that the children walk laps during recess time.” She went on to tell me that their recess was only twenty minutes long and that walking a few laps at the start of every session was now encroaching on their already extremely limited amount of free play during school hours. The physical education teacher had implemented the new policy in order to get children more active.

I honestly believe that the school has the best of intentions. They truly want to help the children. With a growing epidemic of obesity among children, many schools are searching for the best way to help children become more physically fit and healthy. However, we are going about it all wrong. If we truly want children to be strong and physically adept, we need to start allowing for more opportunities for free play and less adult-directed movement activities. Here’s why:

  1. Exercise is Not Meaningful to a Child

Do you remember recess growing up? What are your fondest memories of this time? I remember playing pick-up games of soccer with the boys, jumping off swings, racing other children, and playing pretend for a good hour with friends along the edge of the woods. I also remember running laps around the track, but this was for physical education class -- not during recess. When I was growing up, recess was our opportunity to choose what we would like to play. It was the one period where we could let loose and have a break from instruction and the adult world.

Walking laps isn’t meaningful to most children. It is an activity, with the main purpose being exercise. With recess sessions being cut extremely short, children are already given limited time to enjoy meaningful play experiences -- the type of experiences where children can decide what they want to play, who they want to play with, and move their bodies the way nature intended.

For some children, recess may be their only opportunity to play outdoors with peers on a daily basis. It is their chance to make friends, to relax if they desire to relax, to spin in circles and get dizzy if they need to, to yell and holler to other friends to come play, to belly laugh, to test their limits, to be brave, to regulate their emotions, and to simply be kids. Let’s not take this small window of playtime away from these children. Even if walking laps only takes 5 or 10 minutes – it is still robbing them of this precious outdoor playtime that appears to be dwindling as the years pass.

  1. Free Play Benefits the Neurological System

A child’s neurological system is designed to naturally seek out the sensory input it needs on its own. For instance, if a child is spinning around in circles, it is because they are ready for that sensory input. Another child may not need or want to spin. In fact, it may make them sick to their stomach. Maybe this child needs to have some quiet time to dig in the dirt. A third child may be jumping off a small rock over and over again, because their body is ready for this challenge. The child is the best indicator on what type of movement they need at any given time.

How do we respect children’s need to move in different ways? By simply allowing them plenty of time and space for free play. It is during free play, where children move and challenge their bodies in new ways, constantly testing their limits and getting to the next developmental level. When we take away their time for free play and instead replace this time with adult-directed exercise, it limits the type of movement experiences these children receive. Some children may benefit from the walking. However, others may have needed to go upside down, or swing, or jump, or run, or balance, or roll at that time. They will be missing out on that sensory input they so desperately needed at that moment.

As adults, we may always feel like we know what is best for children. A child’s neurological system begs to differ. 

  1. Walking a Few Laps Won’t Change the Cardio system

Lastly, most children in elementary school don’t need exercise. They need more opportunities for free play in outdoor spaces, where they can naturally challenge their muscles, mind, and senses. Children get plenty of exercise simply by playing outdoors. Most of us never needed to do Pilates, Yoga, strength training, or any other special exercise program growing up. We got our exercise by simply riding our bikes around the neighborhood, climbing trees, racing each other at recess time, creating dams in the stream, and helping to rake the leaves so that we could jump in the piles when we were done.

Even if our top priority is not for children to make friends, engage the senses, solve their own problems, to have fun, and make lasting memories during recess time – we are still missing the bar. If the ultimate goal is for our children to have a healthier cardiovascular system, than walking a few laps at the beginning of recess time isn’t going to cut it. In order to make these changes to the heart or the rest of their muscles for that matter, children need to be participate in heart-pumping activity (which honestly, is best done through meaningful play experiences) for at least 30 minutes. Walking laps may not even be vigorous enough to bring the heart rate up for some children. And most recess sessions only last 15 to 20 minutes. Therefore, walking laps, or any other adult-directed exercise program during recess time falls short of making our children “healthier.”

If we truly want to foster healthy development, we need to start simply giving children more time and space to play.

The answer doesn’t lie in exercise, but in free play.

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30-Mar-2016 05:47 PM Rachel Holland

I totally agree with everything you say and was hoping the laps idea (or running a mile a day) was as an extra to play time (recess in the UK). I cannot believe how much has changed from even when I was little. I was allowed freedom at 7 (and possibly younger) to go and call for friends to play in places where my parents couldn't see in us - large common play fields, on quiet car parks etc. In fact the local neighbourhood children taught me to ride my bike with no adult standing over me getting stressed because I hadn't met the milestone at the right point. I feel my children have been robbed of so much of their childhood entitlement all because of fear of strangers, traffic and now even authority claiming you an unfit parent if you allow your child to have some independence, and can only see it getting worse. Time for a revolution to change thinking!

31-Mar-2016 11:45 AM Blarghity

Just out of curiosity, when do you plan to start laying some of the blame on the parents? You mention how we got exercise as kids on bikes, but consider for a moment how many kids have video game systems instead of bikes these days. There is a lot more to the issue of child health issues than school policy decision.

31-Mar-2016 01:37 PM brian pete

I love this post about recess . . . There is so much to be gained by letting kids be “kids” and letting them play without adult designed structures. This post also makes clear that the brain-based benefits of movement/exercise only happen when the kids are “free” to create, to react and to have fun.
In fact, I like to say, the playground is the most authentic multi-age classroom - Where ability and interests determine who you play/learn with

31-Mar-2016 04:54 PM Justin Cahill

Love your post and will share. Walking laps also places a negative connotation on exercise. Like you said, children need more opportunities for fee play in order to enhance social skills, stimulate creativity, and strengthen emotional resiliency. Thanks for the post.

31-Mar-2016 06:32 PM Robert Shaw


A nice read. I enjoyed that recess or playtime, as it is referred to in the UK is seen as a child being playful and rightly so, choosing movement experiences. The outcomes of being physically active and leading an active lifestyle should be presented to children through quality learning experiences that can become meaningful. The experiences must also be safe, inclusive, engaging and enjoyable. I have just written about outdoor adventurous activities with the above two sentences as my focal point (see my blog).

Additionally, I personally think play is extremely important not just so for children but for adults or for children who are past the nursery and foundation stage. This equates to a 5-year-old, as the UK early years foundation stage curriculum is largely formed through play and sensory activities. Unfortunately, after the first year in primary school, the opportunities to learn in a playful nature is diminished or frowned upon.

However, recess or playtime in my experiences, thus far, often present children with playful break times. I think a greater emphasis needs to be placed on inviting children to play and choosing to be playful through different movement experiences. We can often scaffold play or encourage self discovery. If we want children to love physical activity we need to, as you rightly say, let the children play.



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