Recess a critical opportunity for social and emotional learning

Daily break full of potential benefi ts, but not without its challenges

03/30/2013  |  JILL VIALET and CINDY WILSON

It’s recess! Every school day, millions of children spill out onto their school playgrounds, taking a break from the rigors of class work for roughly 20 minutes. While many educators consider this simply a time for students to relax, run around or socialize, others view it as a potentially dangerous free-for-all. Recess is actually an opportunity to develop critical life skills such as teamwork and conflict resolution. It’s also the time of day when a great deal of social and emotional learning takes place.

“Recess gives students opportunities for social and emotional interactions they can’t get in the classroom, where the teacher is generally at the lead and the students are usually quietly participating or in groups,” explains Principal William Clark of Stepping Stones School in Houston, Texas. “Recess is the chance for students to run the show. It lends itself to more social interaction and development. Students need that time to learn, to be equipped to deal with situations.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) agrees, recently releasing a policy recommendation that all elementary schools include at least 15 minutes of recess in each school day. In their recommendation, published as “The Crucial Role of Recess in School,” the AAP states that, “ ... Recess promotes social and emotional learning and development for children by offering them a time to engage in peer interactions in which they practice and role play essential social skills.”

The recommendation goes on to point out that “through play at recess, children learn valuable communication skills, including negotiation, cooperation, sharing, and problem solving as well as coping skills, such as perseverance and self-control. These skills become fundamental, lifelong personal tools. Recess offers a child a necessary, socially structured means for managing stress. By adapting and adjusting to the complex school environment, children augment and extend their cognitive development in the classroom. “

Growing Beyond Academics

Stepping Stones’ stated mission is “to create a smaller, safer public school that helps the child grow academically, social and emotionally, and physically to their fullest potential.” According to Principal Clark, each of these forms of learning has equal weight.

“In class and out, we work on helping the students improve socially and emotionally. If you have those two, it fosters the academics,” says Clark. “The more they can get along, the better the kids will do in life. It won’t happen overnight, but they need to learn how to interact socially, take social cues, read people, and learn what to say and when to say it for maximum effect.”

Clark finds that recess gives students the best opportunity to practice those skills outside the more prohibitive structure of the classroom.

“We have a playhouse on the playground for these social and emotional interactions, where kids can practice dialog they would use as adults. It’s see-through, so we (administrators) can actually observe how kids engage in dramatic play to build social skills they will need sometime,” he explains. “I really want these kids to learn how to talk with each other, how to negotiate, how to have a conversation.”

Principals around the country overwhelmingly agree with Clark that recess is a vital educational component of the school day. A 2010 Gallup survey of nearly 2000 elementary school principals revealed that a vast majority (96 percent) agrees recess can have a positive impact on the social development of students. In addition, four out of five principals polled stated that recess directly impacts academic achievement.

In addition to its academic, social and emotional benefits, recess has also been shown to have a positive impact on classroom behavior. In 2009, AAP published an analysis of classroom behavior of 11,000 third graders. It found those who had at least 15 minutes of recess per day scored more positively on a behavior assessment by their teachers than students who had less than 15 minutes.

Recess a Challenge for School Administrators

Unfortunately, despite its proven positive impact, recess has become an increasingly difficult part of the day. According to the 2010 Gallup survey, 89 percent of discipline-related problems occur during lunch and recess. Additionally, a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “Recess Rules,” found that many school administrators and teachers see recess as one of the greatest detractors from the learning environment.

The fights, bullying and other negative behaviors that can occur during recess often carry over into the classroom. As a result, some principals choose to decrease playground time or even eliminate recess altogether. One in five principals polled by Gallup said they had decreased recess time.

When conflicts and exclusion become the norm at recess, students may return to class frustrated and angry. As a result, are unable to focus and learn. Those students centrally involved in the conflicts often end up missing hours of valuable learning time because they are in the principal’s office or suspended.

Clark is familiar with the downsides. “Recess provides great opportunities for social interaction and emotional development. It also has great potential for something going wrong,” he says. “When I get a call from a parent, nine times out of 10, it’s about an infraction that took place in PE, recess or in line somewhere.”

Recess Management Crucial for Benefits

To help address the issues at recess, Stepping Stones turned to a national non-profit, Playworks, for additional expertise and support. The organization provides a trained adult “coach” on the playground to work as part of the school team; facilitating recess activities and helping ensure students and teachers have a positive recess experience.

“Most schools treat recess as an afterthought and don’t plan how to manage it,” he observes. “You need to be intentional. With the additional expertise and structure, we’re able to better support kids to work on social interactions and solve problems without yelling and striking each other.”

The benefits of well-managed recess have spilled over to teachers, says Clark. “Our teachers are happier because their specialty is classroom learning, not recess. They are learning there’s an art to releasing the kids for recess, an art to calling them back in, and they understand the importance of playground activities and making sure there are centers for opportunities and things to do.”

Clark offers some practical advice when it comes to getting the optimum physical, social and emotional benefits of recess.

“A well-run recess is worth investing in because it involves every child, every day,” he says. “The kids learn so much on the playground. The academics will only get you in the door. The social and emotional elements will get you the job someday. You don’t get school rankings for teaching those skills, but they are part of the bigger picture, the long-term success of the students.”

Jill Vialet is the founder and CEO of Playworks. Cindy Wilson is the Communications Director at Playworks. For more information visit
Comments & Ratings

  12/2/2013 8:34:04 PM
An elementary student 

The trained adult part 
It seems at my school that kids pretend to pretend to act good around grownups, and continue their fights when the elders leave. Two suggested solutions:
1. Put cameras on walls, especially in the places where grownups don't tend to go.
2. Instead of having specially trained students, let some of the more kind kids be given the job - and you might even train THEM. Just do not tell the other children who they are. Try have different grades, and various characteristics (Include which areas the kid normally hangs out at recess and with whom).