My first experience/lesson on the importance of recess came during the first week I became a grade four teacher. I was standing on a soccer field with a colleague watching a group of students play touch football. If anyone has ever personally experienced that, you know upper elementary competitive games are full of emotion. Every recess game is the Super Bowl to them. A lot is on the line! So there I am, early twenties, inexperienced, and quite anxious as I watched and listened to the exchanges among the students. My colleague, a veteran PE teacher, was standing there next to me, cool as a cucumber. In that moment one of the children was tagged by another but they did not stop and kept running to the endzone. Needless to say, yelling ensued, and I made a sudden move in the direction of the children. Then, my colleague’s hand landed on my forearm, and they calmly said, “Julie, No. Give them some time.” It took all of me to stay back and not intervene. So many thoughts rushed through my mind… I’ve got to get in there and help them. There’s no way they will be able to sort this out. They need me. This will escalate without my immediate intervention.
Within one minute the yelling stopped, and the children broke up the huddle and were back in formation for the next play. I was dumbfounded. This is when my young teacher perceptions and impulses were forever changed because my colleague leaned in and said, “The best support you can give at recess is to be present, aware, and ready to jump in when needed, but not too soon. They best social lessons and directions come from each other.” Now, I must admit, there have been countless occurrences since then when I have intervened at recess. Whether it was a safety issue, or a dispute that was not worked out among the children. However, I can also say, there were countless conflicts at recess when, like that football game, the students were able to negotiate, apologize, speak their minds, and come to a resolution without adult intervention.
While recess is most typically thought of by adults as the time in the day for children to run free and “get the wiggles out”, I argue there’s so much more going on than that. There’s the fitness component. Elementary children play at recess as if they are participating in Parkour. All that jumping, lunging, spinning, sprinting, etc., provides ample gross motor input their growing bodies seek. Many need to take their jackets and sweatshirts off at some point due to the increase in their heart rates which is so beneficial to their cardio health, bone, and muscle development.
There’s also the social emotional component that I fear is too often overlooked. Research has confirmed that a strong relationship exists between the level of a person’s emotional competence and self-regulation and their success in their careers and personal relationships (Cote et al., 2010; Grewal et al., 2006; Hanafi & Noor, 2016). How do children develop emotional competence and self-regulation? For children birth through age five, it’s the modeling and coaching of the primary caregivers that has the greatest impact (Houseman, 2017). For school-age children, it’s through play (Jarrett, 2019; Pellegrini & Bohn, 2005; Yogman et al., 2018). Play at recess provides the perfect setting for children to practice and further develop the skills of communication, patience, sharing, leadership, regulation, sportsmanship, conflict resolution, and creativity. At times, it’s helpful for teachers to plan games when a group struggles to do so for themselves, but what is critical is for the teacher to scaffold themselves out at the right moment so the children begin to plan and make decisions on their own. At other times, it’s important for teachers to get involved if a child is feeling excluded. Again, the teacher must prompt, coach, and model and then, when appropriate, slowly pull out to provide that time for social emotional planning, practice, and initiative from the students.
If your childhood was anything like mine, you might recall the monkey bars, squeaky swings, and kickball from elementary school recess. I don’t really remember any of the teachers or the scraped knees I know I experienced during recess. Other things I recall about recess were some challenges with friends, a few tears, and a number of athletic defeats. However, most present in my memories is laughter, the wind in my hair, and sheer joy. Little did I know how much those moments would play in the development of who I am today. Recess is an important component of every school day. Just don’t try to go against the group when they’re heading out the doors… you’ll be knocked over by an explosion of elation and spirit. Watch out!
Côté, S., Gyurak, A., & Levenson, R. W. (2010). The ability to regulate emotion is associated with greater well-being, income, and socioeconomic status. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 10(6), 923–933. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021156 Grewal, D., Brackett, M., & Salovey, P. (2006). Emotional Intelligence and the Self-Regulation of Affect. In Snyder, Simpson, & Hughes (Eds.), Emotion regulation in couples and families: Pathways to dysfunction and health (pp. 37–55). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/11468-002
Zahyah H., &a Farukh, N. (2016) Relationship between emotional intelligence and academic achievement in emerging adults: a systematic review. International Journal of Academic Research in Business and Social Sciences, 6(6). pp. 268-290. ISSN 2222-6990
Housman, D.K. (2017). The importance of emotional competence and self-regulation from birth: A case for the evidence-based emotional cognitive social early learning approach. ICEP 11(13). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40723-017-0038-6
Jarrett, O. (2019). A research-based case for recess. Position Paper for US Play Coalition Update. Georgia State University.
Pellegrini, A. D., & Bohn, C. M. (2005). The role of recess in children’s cognitive performance and school adjustment. Educational Researcher, 34(1), 13–19. Retrieved from doi:10.3102/0013189x034001013
Yogman, M., Garner, A., Hutchinson, J., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff R. M. (2018). The power of play: A pediatric role in enhancing development in young children. Pediatrics, 142(3) e20182058; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2018-2058