Why Recess is the Most Important Time of Day

Recess improves listening skills, develops the capacity to love, encourages social creativity and more.
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The subject of recess has been making headlines lately. After years of increasing instructional time and decreasing free time in pursuit of higher test scores, the tides seem to be turning as lawmakers in several states move to reinstate lost play time.

But the importance of recess is not news to me. As someone who has worked in education for more than 20 years, I’ve been a longtime proponent of recess, ensuring students get two to three recess times daily, as well as additional “talk breaks.” Middle-schoolers also need breaks with a recess before lunch and opportunities during the day to collaborate with peers, which also reduces the drive to socialize at the wrong time.

Why is Recess Such an Important Part of the School Day?  

Social and emotional growth is intrinsically linked to academic growth for two main reasons. Like us, children can’t learn if they don’t feel happy and secure, and secondly, children learn while at play — through their own experience, through their interaction with peers, and through their interactions with adults.

There is a reason why, when you ask a student what their favorite lesson is, they usually say "recess." Children come to school to make friends. Recess is when children get time to spend with their friends, learn how to be a friend and ultimately practice their capacity to negotiate. It’s where they improve their listening skills, develop their capacity to love, discover their social creativity, learn to forgive and even learn how to recover from the pain of social rejection.

Teachers of the most rigorous curriculum can also teach in a ‘playful’ way, using humor and building relationships to ensure students feel confident to take risks and make mistakes. The classroom activities can also encourage collaboration. We know the most effective education occurs when children are engaged, excited and motivated. A simple example would be to compare two activities: Completing a page of math problems or playing a game that requires the same algebraic thinking skills. The latter, "play-based" activity will not only quickly lead a child to independent learning, but will allow opportunity to increase the difficulty of the task and the student’s stamina, without increasing anxiety or fear of failure in the child.

Parents can bring play into the home in a similar way. Setting or clearing the table is much more fun when the child is the waiter and the parents are guests at the “restaurant” (the dinner table). Next time you need a small child to stand still, ask them to pretend to be a soldier on guard. Or, if you need a child to really listen, put a sock on your hand and let your "sock hand" do the talking.

But don’t just take my word for it. Freidrich Froebel, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget … all the giants in the child development field, have said that play is central to a child’s development. In our modern, busy, connected world, now more than ever, we need to give children permission to just play.

Alison Gammage is the Head of Lower School at St. Timothy's School in Raleigh. Gammage, a native of the United Kingdom, studied theology at the University of Oxford and then went on to complete a master's degree in education, followed by a master's degree in special education in the U.S. She served as a teacher and administrator at schools in Washington, D.C., before moving to Raleigh to join St. Timothy's School.


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