A new study released May 14 from Mathematica Policy Research and the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University suggests that there may be more to recess than just a break in the school day.
The randomized controlled trial of Playworks, a nonprofit organization that delivers a safe, healthy recess in low-income elementary schools in 22 U.S. cities, found that the program reduced bullying, enhanced feelings of safety at school, increased vigorous physical activity during recess, and provided more time for classroom teaching. The research raises the possibility that what happens at recess can affect a school’s learning environment in important ways, and that improving recess and play may enable schools to address a number of pressing issues at the same time.
“These findings reinforce what we have seen across the nation in schools that partner with Playworks to make recess and play a priority,” said Nancy Barrand, senior adviser for program development with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “This study suggests that a great recess is an essential building block for healthy school environments that help kids thrive socially, emotionally, and physically.”
Key findings include:
- Less Bullying. Teachers in Playworks schools reported significantly less bullying and exclusionary behavior during recess compared to teachers in control schools—a 43 percent difference in average rating scores.
- Increased Feelings of Safety at School. Playworks teachers’ average rating of students’ feelings of safety at school was 20 percent higher than the average rating reported by teachers in control schools.
- More Vigorous Physical Activity. Accelerometer data showed that children in Playworks schools spent significantly more time engaged in vigorous physical activity at recess than their peers in control schools (14 percent versus 10percent of recess time—a 43 percent difference).
- Ready to Learn. Teachers in Playworks schools reported spending significantly less time to transition from recess to learning activities (34 percent fewer minutes).
According to Susanne James-Burdumy, Ph.D., education area leader for Mathematica, “Playworks had a positive impact on outcomes in the school climate, conflict resolution and aggression, learning and academic performance, and physical activity domains. These impacts suggest that Playworks was beneficial to schools, teachers, and students along multiple dimensions.”
Could a Better Recess be the Key to a Better School Day?
Despite shrinking budgets, schools are faced with the challenge of boosting academic performance while also having to address the social, emotional, and physical needs of students. Recess and other school-based playtime are some of the least-studied elements of the school day. Elementary school principals and teachers often say, however, that as goes recess, so goes the school day. Last year the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that “recess is a necessary break in the day for optimizing a child’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development.”
This new research contributes to a growing body of evidence that a safe, healthy, and organized recess environment—like the one Playworks provides—has the potential to be a key driver of better behavior and learning. A non-experimental study conducted by the University of California, San Francisco found that students from schools with Playworks reported higher levels of physical activity, participation at school, problem-solving, and goals/aspirations compared to students from schools without Playworks. In another evaluation, the Harvard Family Research Project credited Playworks with improving cooperation and bonds among students and between kids and adults in school. In Baltimore, principals have reported using programs such as Playworks to make progress in reducing conflict and suspensions.