The right to play: Eliminating the opportunity gap in elementary school recess 

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Denying students access to safe, healthy, and inclusive recess deprives them of important physical, social, and emotional benefits. 


Elementary school recess is perhaps the least well-thought-out time of the school day. There are no standards or curricula to guide its provision and governance, virtually no accountability for whether and how this time is offered or withheld for disciplinary purposes, and few established forms of professional development for recess staff. However, while adults rarely pay much attention to recess, for the 24.9 million elementary schoolchildren in the United States, recess is a big deal. Not only is it many students’ favorite (and the one unstructured) part of the school day, but it is well documented that recess helps elementary schoolchildren learn and develop physically, socially, emotionally, and academically. Much more than just a break from class, recess offers a range of important benefits. 

The health rewards of recess are unmistakable: Recess affords students opportunities for physical activity, helping them to meet the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation of 60 minutes of activity per day (Murray & Ramstetter, 2013). But the benefits go beyond student health. Physical activity is associated with improved cognition in children (Ratey & Hagerman, 2008), and there is a positive relationship between physical activity/fitness and students’ academic outcomes (London & Castrechini, 2011; Rasberry et al., 2011). Exercise has also been shown to help children concentrate and improve their self-esteem (Caterino & Polak, 1999; Biddle & Asare, 2011). 

Further, recess can make important contributions to larger efforts to improve school climate (London et al., 2015). For example, a well-designed recess provides opportunities to attend to students’ and adults’ feelings of physical and emotional safety, build student-adult relationships, and strengthen student and adult connectedness to and engagement in school — the building blocks of positive school climate (National Center of Safe Supportive Learning Environments, 2018) —  which, in turn, are associated with improved academic and mental health outcomes for students (Thapa et al., 2013).  

Moreover, while recess has mostly been overlooked by recent efforts to strengthen students’ social-emotional learning (SEL), it has important contributions to make in this area, too. A well-designed recess period can help students develop their capacity to manage their emotions, show respect and empathy for others, and maintain positive relationships with peers (Milteer, Ginsburg, & Mulligan, 2012; Waite-Stupiansky & Findlay, 2002; Dusenbury & Weissberg, 2017), skills that are strongly associated with improvements in academic achievement (Durlak et al., 2011; Zins & Elias, 2007). Learning such skills on the playground also translates to better student behavior in the classroom (Barros, Silver, & Stein, 2009), reducing the amount of time teachers spend helping students resolve post-recess problems. One study found that over the course of the school year, teachers can gain as much as the equivalent of a full day’s instruction simply by helping students have better interactions during recess (Fortson et al., 2013).  

Finally, it’s important to recognize that play itself is critical for healthy child development (Pelligrini, 2008), as has been acknowledged by a range of human rights and education policy and advocacy groups, including the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (which was signed by nearly every country in the world). Major organizations that have issued position statements in support of recess include the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists, National Association for the Education of Young Children, Association for Childhood Education International, National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of State Boards of Education, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and, most recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Still, and in spite of the many benefits of recess, there are significant disparities in access to it, with students of color and those in urban, low-income communities often missing out on these important developmental opportunities. When it comes to recess, three key questions define the opportunity gap: (1) Is recess part of the daily schedule? (2) Is recess withheld as a punishment for bad behavior or missed schoolwork? And (3) has the school taken steps to make recess a safe, healthy, and inclusive experience? 

Is recess part of the daily schedule? 

At the onset of the standards-based accountability movement, recess was perceived as an expendable time that, like art and music, could be cut to support improved student test scores. In 1998, Benjamin Canada, then Superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, summed up the prevailing attitude toward recess by telling a New York Times reporter, “We are intent on improving academic performance. You don’t do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars” (Johnson, 1998). Atlanta was one of the first public school districts to eliminate recess, with district administrators making the case that students can get their physical activity in physical education class; any midday breaks for recess, they argued, would simply take away from instruction in core content. Atlanta was not the only school district to take this approach; other cities with large concentrations of low-income and Black children, including Chicago and Baltimore, also took the drastic step of eliminating recess from the schedule. Many other districts also considered changes to recess: In 1999, up to 40% of schools eliminated recess, cut back on recess, or were considering one of these options (Nussbaum, 2006). Indications are that even among districts that retained daily recess, a fifth reduced the amount of time allocated to it (McMurrer, 2008).  

Today, although two-thirds of school districts require elementary schools to provide regularly scheduled recess (CDC, 2016), there are still disparities in access to recess. Although there are no annually collected, national, population-based statistics on access to daily recess for elementary students, several different data sources point to the conclusion that low-income, urban students and students of color have the least access to recess during the school day. One estimate from the mid-2000s indicates that while 77% of White 3rd-grade students have access to regular recess, the same is true for only 62% of Latinx 3rd graders and 41% of Black 3rd graders (Barros, Silver, & Stein, 2009). My own re-analysis of a 2010 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Gallup national survey (Gallup, 2010) of elementary school principals similarly shows that even when recess is scheduled regularly (as it was for all survey respondents), students in low-income urban schools have fewer days or fewer minutes scheduled than their counterparts in other schools. Students in disadvantaged communities are also more likely to attend a school with lower-quality playground facilities (Fernandes & Sturm, 2010).  

The most current data on recess provision come from the CDC’s 2016 School Health Policies and Practices Survey, conducted biannually. However, the published report aggregates data across all student populations, so disparities in access are not visible. Also, because these data represent a sample rather than a census of schools, community members and policy makers cannot use the information to explore recess provision in their own or neighboring schools and districts. This is a solvable problem; the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights should include recess policies and access as part of its annual data collections that have allowed education observers to document disproportionality in other critical areas, including school discipline and access to math, science, and Advanced Placement courses. 

Federal educational policy does not address recess provision, but in 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and SHAPE America released a set of recommendations in support of safe and healthy recess (CDC & SHAPE America, 2017a, 2017b). State policies are starting to address recess as well. In 2016, eight states explicitly required recess (SHAPE America, 2016), and at least five states have since passed their own laws that require recess or revised existing laws to include a specified number of minutes (London, 2019).  

Is recess withheld? 

Even if recess is scheduled, it may be withheld, whether for disciplinary reasons or because students are behind on schoolwork. For example, during a visit to an urban elementary school, my research team observed that the lunchroom monitor kept every kindergartner inside the lunchroom during their scheduled recess time as punishment for misbehavior. This is not an isolated instance. In the 42 schools my research teams visited between 2009 and 2016, we observed repeated instances of individual students or whole classes punished by having recess withheld. We heard of detention rooms where students were kept during their recess periods and observed students at many recesses sitting outside watching other students play during their punishment.  

Withholding recess for punishment is counterintuitive because the students who have trouble sitting still or being quiet are often the ones who would benefit the most from some free time to move around and regain their focus.

Many teachers I spoke with while conducting this research reported that they believed the threat of recess withdrawal was the best way to keep their students’ behavior in check, but I have seen no published research to support this practice. Indeed, withholding recess for punishment is counterintuitive because the students who have trouble sitting still or being quiet are often the ones who would benefit the most from some free time to move around and regain their focus. Students with more severe behavioral problems who are often repeatedly denied recess also need that time, perhaps with additional support, to help them develop and practice important social and emotional skills, such as self-awareness, self-management, and responsible decision making (Dusenbury & Weissberg, 2017).  

Most problematic from an opportunity-gap perspective is that there are virtually no data on how many and which students have recess withheld and how often this occurs. Given what we know about disproportionality in school discipline (e.g., Skiba et al., 2011), we might guess that Black and Latino boys as well as children in special education experience the highest rates of recess withholding. I do not believe it is alarmist to point to this practice as creating an unnecessary stepladder into the well-documented school-to-prison pipeline.  

As with recess access, recent federal guidance from the CDC and SHAPE America recommends that withholding recess not be used as a tool for punishment or for making up missed schoolwork. In 2016, a total of nine states had policies that specifically prohibit withholding recess as a punishment for disciplinary purposes, including some states without provisions requiring access to recess (SHAPE America, 2016). This policy does not need to come from state legislation, however. School districts and schools themselves can declare withholding recess as antithetical to the goals of elementary education and prohibit the practice. 

Is recess safe, healthy, and inclusive? 

By scheduling recess every day and choosing not to withhold it from students, schools can begin to close the recess opportunity gap. But still, those steps are not sufficient. Many schools also need to do more to treat recess as a developmental setting. This was the primary reason that the national nonprofit organization Playworks, with whom I have partnered in my research, came into existence. I have learned through data collections at urban, low-income elementary schools with and without Playworks services that schools face a number of recess-time challenges, including students’ inability to initiate or sustain games and activities; bullying, fighting, and exclusion; boredom and fear; the need for adult monitors, and the need to train monitors how to be positive guides and role models during recess.  

To close the recess opportunity gap (and perhaps even reduce disparities in elementary school discipline), I propose schools embrace an “organized recess” (London, 2019) model, in which students have free choice for play, games occupy dedicated spaces in the play yard, equipment is managed centrally, common rules to games are established to promote fair play, adults engage with students in pro-social ways, simple strategies for conflict resolution are taught and supported, and all students are included. This is not a structured recess, like a physical education class where children must engage in adult-defined games or activities. Rather, organized recess is based on the philosophy that recess should be tailored to the space, needs, and play culture of the school. Free choice to play available games or create imaginative play is essential in an organized recess as children have the right to decide how they want to spend their free time. Adult involvement to ensure students are able to join any game is also critical. In some schools, this might include teachers or recess monitors playing alongside students; in others, adults might act in a support role, encouraging play by refereeing a basketball game or turning a jump rope. Adults still have the role of helping children to resolve conflicts and ensuring safety, and managing these competing priorities can be a challenge. Planning for how the recess space and time are used can support greater freedom of play for students and more student engagement, as well as improved feelings of safety and satisfaction for both students and school staff.  

Research indicates that organizing recess improves student engagement in play, increases physical activity, and enhances school climate.

What can happen when schools take this approach? My research (London, 2019) indicates that organizing recess improves student engagement in play, increases physical activity, and enhances school climate. It reduces bullying and disciplinary referrals and also reduces the amount of time teachers spend calming students after recess. Students report a more fun and “nicer” recess environment, and principals report that the improved recess environment carries over to the rest of the school day.  

The chief barrier to creating an organized recess is that it takes effort on the part of school administrators, who are always short on time, and a recess oversight team, which may not be professionally trained to set up developmentally appropriate spaces. Changing job descriptions to reframe recess monitor responsibilities, partnering with local organizations like the Boys & Girls Club, and tapping older elementary students to act as junior leaders are all creative ways to build a coalition of recess supporters from within. 

A call to play 

Elementary school students have the right to play during the school day. Closing the recess opportunity gap requires ensuring access to daily recess for all children at school, finding and enforcing alternatives to recess withholding, and designing recess to ensure it supports students’ social, emotional, and physical development. Yet this is not enough. We must also initiate regular data collections through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights so that the recess opportunity gap can be documented, addressed, and closed. At this critical moment when state lawmakers across the country are revising their education codes to ensure access to recess, we must take action to support all schoolchildren in accessing a safe, healthy, inclusive, and supportive recess environment. 


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Citation: London, R.A. (2019, Oct. 28). The right to play: Eliminating the opportunity gap in elementary school recess. Phi Delta Kappan, 101 (3), 48-52.

REBECCA A. LONDON ( is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of Rethinking Recess: Creating Safe and Inclusive Playtime for All Children in School (Harvard Education Press, 2019). 

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