More than child’s play

Recess has the potential to improve performance in the classroom, experts say


Twice a day at an Ottawa elementary school the bell rings, and hundreds of students in brightly coloured outerwear stream out the doors and into their respective play areas. Recess isn’t the most academic aspect of the school day, but it has the potential to play a key role in student health, well-being, and success.


According to the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA), recess is defined as regularly scheduled periods within the elementary school day for unstructured physical activity and play. They identify several benefits of the unstructured play available during recess, including:


  • Improved attention and memory
  • Increased physical activity levels
  • Stronger social skills and emotional intelligence
  • Improved resilience and self-regulation
  • Improved mental health and well-being


Brian Lamb, head of school at Joan of Arc Academy, believes that a longer period of unstructured play during recess helps the students at the school focus in class. The school day at Joan of Arc includes two short, fifteen-minute recesses and a one-hour lunch break. Lamb has worked at schools where students sit for stretches of classroom time, and he experienced more difficulty with maintaining student attention and even more disciplinary issues. “It’s hard to stay focused when you sit for a long time,” he says.


The students also benefit from the unstructured time available to them at recess. Because many students are involved in extracurricular as well as academic activities, they lack experience with deciding how to spend their time, an important life skill. Recess time can allow students to pause and think about what they want to do, promoting self-awareness and independence. “The importance of unstructured play for mindfulness is absolutely key,” says Lamb.


One of the important aspects of recess is the opportunity for socialization. “Recess provides one of the few forums for children to interact with their peers on their own terms, as classroom instruction is often focused on individual learning and free play after school is diminishing,” according to the CPHA. However, there is no guarantee that students will experience positive social interaction, and indeed bullying and exclusion can make recess a negative experience for some. The Recess Project, led by Dr. Lauren McNamara, aims to support relationship building at school and help schools focus on the quality of the recess time available. “The culture of recess is not very inviting for many kids, and that undermines connecting, physical activity, and a healthy break,” says McNamara, “We have to be careful about increasing recess time without providing students with a meaningful, healthy environment.”


McNamara’s research suggests that the quality of recess time at many schools suffers from lack of planning, minimal supervision, strict rules, and little to no available play equipment for students. The Recess Project has piloted a project in southern Ontario that works with schools to provide equipment in designated activity spaces. Specially trained volunteer recess supervisors help students organize games and resolve conflicts. The program is designed to scaffold student friendships and promote inclusive active play, while still allowing schools to maintain the safety of recess time.


“Recess can be a big challenge for principals,” says McNamara, adding that a few staff resources and little funding can be devoted to recess time, which results in strict rules that limit the value of the time or even lead to reduced recess time. “We are working with national partners and policy makers, because we need policy to support and protect the quality of recess,” says McNamara.


One of those partners is Physical Health and Education Canada (PHE Canada), which hopes to help expand the project across Canada. Tricia Zakaria is the director of programs and education with PHE Canada. “We see recess as an important component of the school day, because it promotes whole child development: physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development.” She says it’s the right time to move forward on initiatives to improve recess. “When we look at where we are at in Canada, with the number of children with mental health concerns, low amounts of physical activity, and poor social interaction, we know that it’s important to do something about it.” She emphasizes that PHE Canada commends schools that are making changes to improve recess quality. “It’s about working together,” Zakaria says, “to swing the pendulum back a little bit to support the development of all children.”