Harvard Mental Health Letter

Commentary: The importance of recess


The importance of recess

As we were putting together this issue, and with summer's more leisurely pace in view, an article extolling the virtues of play and relaxation seemed timely. Writing in the journal Pediatrics, a group of researchers from Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York showed that, compared to those who have minimal or no recess time, elementary school children who have free time during the day receive higher ratings from teachers on their classroom behavior.

This makes intuitive sense. And a few small studies have demonstrated the value of recess — defined as a break in the school day that is given over to free, unstructured, active play. This prior research showed that children are less fidgety and more attentive after recess. In a communiqué from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in early 2007, Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, a pediatrician at the University of Pennsylvania, described play as essential for healthy brain development, with positive effects for intellectual and emotional development. It promotes not just intelligence, but also creativity, imagination, and resilience.

The power of this study comes from its size and breadth. The authors used a data set from a large survey sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. They reviewed data collected on more than 15,000 students, 8 or 9 years old, most of whom were third graders. Students came from all major ethnic groups and every geographical region in the United States. The study included an equal number of boys and girls, who attended both public and private schools. Parents ranged in education from those who had not finished high school to those who had earned a graduate degree. All socioeconomic levels were represented, as were communities ranging from urban to rural.

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