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Recess and Social Development
By Tom Jambor

Although nearly four decades have passed, this writer can still vividly remember the joys and experiences of play and socializing during the primary school years. For my friends and me, the opportunity to play together was an important reason to come to school.

We played on the formal playground and in general open areas before the school bell rang or the teacher signaled us to come in to start our lessons. We were given a 20-minute outdoor recess in the morning, a like 20 minutes in the afternoon, and a full "lunch hour"-gulping food down as quickly as possible so we could get out to our ball games, jump-rope partners, games of chase, cliques, or just to wander around solo.

Although teachers watched over us, they seldom told us what to play or with whom to play. They seemed to enjoy the break as well. It was a time for all of us to get away from academic tasks and recharge. I enjoyed my teachers in that informal context. They were different there. They seemed just like regular people. They laughed at our silly jokes and behavior, they hugged us in joy or after a bump or bruise, and it wasn't hard to consider them friends. Younger kids watched and learned from older kids. It was a time to figure out who we were, to deal with the justices and injustices of social involvement, and to practice the skills that round out what is now referred to as "the whole child".

Growing up is not easy. There are so many disappointments, challenges, and important decisions, all of which can hammer away at one's self-esteem and tug hard on emotions. But it is all part of growing into a responsible, caring, secure, autonomous young adult. Social time with peers each day helped my childhood friends and me put life's challenges into perspective and allowed us to assert our own personal identities.

Recess is simply a break in what one is engaged in. It is a period of time away from the task at hand: an interlude, a change of pace. For example, a judge may call a recess if courtroom participants are tired, frustrated, or unfocused because of too much on-task activity. Congressional sessions recess for similar reasons. An office worker may remove herself from the tedium at her desk to stretch, walk around, get a cup of coffee, or socialize with a colleague.

"Recess," then, is not an alien word in our adult vocabulary, nor an abnormal response to physical and mental needs. Ask any adult; we need recess periods! It helps our sanity, our nerves, our need to move, converse, change pace, etc. It helps us to get through the work day; to reduce fatigue and burnout; to enhance on-task behavior, enthusiasm and energy; and to develop a more positive outlook on our work.

If adults have this daily need to recess from prolonged confinement, then it is not difficult to understand the child having, at the very least, similar needs. Although short on scientific credibility, the surplus energy theory has been seen by psychologists as a means for justifying the need for children to release excess energy, or "blow off steam" after a long time in the classroom (Pellegrini and Davis, 1993). For both adults and children, on-task attention can, then, be increased by providing opportunities for diversion. This is the basis for novelty theory:

Children need recess because they are temporarily bored with their immediate classroom environment. When they go outdoors for recess they seek novelty by interacting with different peers in different situations. But, when the novelty of the recess environment begins to wane, they again need to change. At this point, the classroom becomes a novelty and children actually pay closer attention (Pellegrini, 1991, p.40).

While adults can better inhibit their needs to move and socialize during work hours, it is difficult for children to do so. The child is a natural mover, doer and shaker. It is natural that a child who must tolerate repeated periods of "seat work" will feel mental fatigue and restlessness. Yet we all too often force children through stretches of time and tedium that would tax many adults. Prolonged confinement of children in elementary classrooms has been found to result in a high probability of fidgeting, restlessness, and subsequent reduction in concentration (Pellegrini and Davis, 1993).

Tomporowski and Ellis (1988) have suggested that vigorous playground behavior is related to attention to seat work after recess and that exercise increases attention to various cognitive tasks. According to Pellegrini and Glickman (1989), "the longer young children spend in classrooms, the longer and more vigorous is their play outdoors....[and] such a release period for them (not to mention the teachers) may facilitate their subsequent attention to more academic tasks and minimize fidgeting and squirming in their seats once they return from recess" (p. 23). Stevenson (1992) also found that "attention is more likely to falter after several hours of classes than it is if opportunities for play and relaxation precede each class" (p. 75). Recess then, is an important element of classroom management and behavior guidance.

Recess and Social Implications

Recess encourages all areas of children's development. As children interact, they use language and nonverbal communications; they make decisions and solve problems, and they deal with the emotional trials and tribulations of their interactions (Jambor, 1986; Jambor & Gargiulo, 1987). According to Pellegrini and Glickman (1989, p. 24):

 

Recess is one of the few times during the school day when children are free to exhibit a wide range of social competencies - sharing, cooperation, negative and passive language - in the context that they see meaningful. Only at recess does the playground become one of the few places where children can actually define and enforce meaningful social interaction during the day. Without recess, the children lose an important educational experience.

Pellegrini's and Davis' (1993) research suggests that there is a significant relationship between classroom behavior and recess. For example, children engaged in recess may be practicing cognitive skills they already possess and are using when doing seat work. This would be consistent with Groos's (1901) notion of play as practice. Pellegrini and Davis (1993) also offer a more liberal interpretation of this practice theory : "children on the playground, through social interaction with peers, are learning skills which are transferred to the classroom. This is consistent with Piaget's (1970) notions of the facilitative effects of peer interaction on cognition" (p.95).

The educational role of recess for both social and cognitive development is becoming increasingly clear. Children must function in both the social and the cognitive domains if they are to successfully adapt to school and societal norms.

These domains are empirically related and should be considered intertwined and separable (Pellegrini, 1992; Pellegrini and Smith, 1993). In other words, social interaction facilitates cognition; recess (indoor and out) offers the opportunity for this growth.

The playground during recess is one of the few places where today's children can actively confront, interpret, and learn from meaningful social experiences. Interactive games such as "chase," where both boys and girls are able to compromise and negotiate roles through language forms, can, for example, predict academic success. Random chase often turns into the organized game of "tag" (Pellegrini and Glickman, 1989). These social experiences become quite educational: "First, they help the children learn to cooperate to the extent that the play requires cooperation. Second, children learn to solve problems in such forms of play. They realize that in order to sustain their chase play with peers they must take turns being the chaser or the chased. If they refuse to change roles, play ends. This reciprocating role is a powerful predictor of the ability to cooperate and view events from different perspectives" (p.24). This valuable educational experience is lost for those who do not have recess opportunities. Sluckin (1981) and Sutton-Smith (1971) have long considered social skills learned and practiced on the playground during recess as important to later development. Groos (1901), Piaget (1932), Vygotsky (1978), and

Sluckin (1981) all viewed children's play as practice and preparation for adulthood. The school playground was the practice site that encouraged games of competition, allowed experimentation with new and novel social strategies, and accommodated family-oriented dramatic play. Each child could find a spot that fit along the play continuum, from rough-and-tumble play (Pellegrini and Perlmutter, 1988) to sedentary play.

Recess is a rich opportunity for assessment of social development through informal observations. Teachers observing children on the playground during recess can assess peer popularity, a proven predictor of school adjustment (Pellegrini and Glickman, 1989). For example, boys who engage in solitary play during recess, even if vigorous (e.g. climbing, running, jumping), may be rejected by their peers, because they do "not have necessary social skills to interact cooperatively with their peers.... Children who consistently spend their recess sitting alone or with playground supervisors, and not participating with their peers, may be at risk for personality disorders and need help" (p.24). Rejection from or being disliked by peers also appears to be linked to risk of juvenile delinquency later on.

Teachers also can observe whether boys and girls have equal opportunities to join competitive and noncompetitive types of play. A socialization model (Sluckin, 1981; Lever, 1976; Finnan, 1982) characterizes children's roles as being the product of adult roles, and children's play as a reflection of these roles. Thus, recess play has been seen as a training ground for development of gender roles and the preparation for adulthood. Although adult gender roles have changed over the years, play patterns based on traditional gender roles persist. Informal observations of play during recess allow teachers to monitor whether they are effectively offering both types of play to both sexes.

Changing Attitudes toward Recess

Recess, once a reliable part of American children's school life, now is absent or only an afterthought in many schools. As a result, opportunities for social interchange are minimal. All too many schools now greatly restrict talking among children before class, during class, during lunch, and when standing in line to go anywhere. Indeed, recess may be the only time when children can interact without adult intervention or restriction. This makes school recess more vital than ever to social development.

 

Once upon a time, the vast majority of children came home from school and played in backyards and neighborhood with friends. This supported the argument that children had plenty of time after school and on weekends for play and the subsequent social experiences that promote total development. Today, however too many children have restricted play experiences after school because they indulge in excessive television viewing and sedentary electronic game playing. Many are home alone in the afternoons and restricted to solitary indoor activity, and, when allowed outside, are not allowed to wander because of parental fears (often justified) of violence. In addition, over the last 20 years, a growing urbanization has slowly and methodically squeezed out the natural play spaces used by children, while "formal" play spaces, such as park and community school playgrounds, are often considered unappealing and/or unsafe because of antiquated equipment and the lack of consistent maintenance (Jambor and Guddemi, 1993).

The children of today should have the same opportunities for frequent, free play and the accompanying social development, as did children of past generations. Our children are at risk of losing their right to play. School recess (indoor as well as outdoor) is the best time for guaranteeing all children time to play.

Unfortunately, too many adults who influence early childhood curricula and school schedules do not understand the value and importance of recess as a time to play. Many teachers, administrators, and parents consider recess wasted time. They believe that recess is, at best, peripheral to children's learning experiences and that children learn best in school when they focus on basic skills and stay on task (Pelligrini and Glickman, 1989). They fear that our children are not keeping up with the academic successes of Asian children and argue for us to get back to basics (as if play is not basic) and academics and to improve test scores. In this view, recess takes children away from academic curriculum on which they will be tested. Education policy makers are so obsessed with academic attainment that they have eliminated or drastically reduced other activities which are important in children's total growth, development and learning. Curriculum is weighted too heavily towards cognitive development. There is nothing wrong with cognitive gain, unless its emphasis becomes so overwhelming that children's other developmental domains, including social development, become stifled. Today's education policy makers have too little understanding of how powerful recess and related experiences can be to the child's overall growth, development, and educational program.

If we must compare the academic successes of American children with Asian children, it might be beneficial to look at the Asian academic program within the context of their total school day. Granted, Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese children spend long hours at school, but their eight-hour school day includes frequent recesses, long lunch periods, and afterschool activities and clubs. These add up to one-fourth of their school day. The Asian school day is longer because so much time is devoted to these non-academic opportunities (Stevenson, 1992). Elementary schools that alternate studying with frequent periods of play and physical activity help children maintain attention, make learning easier and more enjoyable, and create cooperative and positive attitudes toward academics. While play, social interaction and extracurricular activity may not contribute directly to academic success, they make school more interesting and pleasant. Asian elementary schools appear to strive for a balance among academic curriculum, play, social interaction, and extracurricular activities (Stevenson, 1992).Recess is also a part of school life for most primary schools in Great Britain. It is not uncommon to find British school children with 15-minute periods of outdoor play in both the morning and afternoon, and an 80-90 minute play period at dinner time (Pelligrini and Smith 1993). That these countries value recess is another argument for reexamining the value of recess

Strategies for Advocating Recess
But how can early childhood teachers and caregivers advance the case for recess? Here are some ideas. The following suggestions for the classroom teacher promote both recess advocacy and curriculum content:

 

  • Educate administrators. Provide your principal with articles that advocate the virtues of recess. Highlight important points and ask to talk with your principal later about your school's recesses.

  • Educate the faculty. Talk with them about the issue. When you think a good number of teachers are sympathetic, ask to put the topic on the agenda of a faculty meeting.

  • Educate parents. Parents have a tremendous influence on what is acceptable or unacceptable within your curriculum. To gain parent allies who also advocate recess time within the child's daily schedule, hold a parent meeting armed with dialogue and literature to convince them of the value of play and the recess play experience. A motivating, knowledgeable outside speaker on recess, play and children's development may also have strong audience impact. Parent understanding of the principles of play, and of children's total development through play, can affect both support for recess and the level of assistance and commitment for developing a safer, more stimulating playground.

  • Provide in-class recesses. While you may be unable to change school schedules, you probably can change your classroom's schedule to provide more indoor recess. The "free play" or "choice time" of the preschool classroom is easy to adapt for primary children. To encourage children's social development, allow them plenty of space and freedom to play in small groups. Give them regular opportunities to choose their own activities in the classroom and let them talk!

  • Write letters and opinion pieces. Share ideas about the value of recess in newsletters to parents and letters to the editors of local newspapers. Write to school board members, legislators, and the superintendent. Children can write their own letters, too.

  • Speak out! Talking one-on-one with parents, other teachers, and administrators, and writing letters and opinion pieces, will give you the experience and confidence you need to become a spokesperson for recess! Try this tactic: Invite a television feature reporter to experience recess with your children. Practice conversational, positive, persuasive comments about the value of recess so that you will be ready to give an on-camera interview. You might also prepare a fact sheet with some basic points about the value of recess to give to the reporter.

When children participate, the process of advocacy for recess can have several educational benefits. Like any topic, recess can be woven into the socio-cognitive environment of the classroom. Children who think, talk, create art, and write about the value of recess will practice critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making, verbal and written language, and motivational and persuasion strategies.

 

Conclusion

Both school day memories and recent research support the need and value of recess. Recess sets the occasion for play and subsequent social encounters that influence and nurture all other areas of development. Recess is an important counter to rigorous academic curricula and expectations for on-task behavior. Recess allows teachers to observe and evaluate children's social interactions and behavior and to respond accordingly. Recess offers children a chance to be children; to do child-like things; to claim a time during the day to call their own. I can still hear that predictable question by the visiting relative, "What do you like best about school?" The inevitable reply, "recess!"

 

Tom Jambor, Ed.D., is an associate professor of early childhood development at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, an international playground designer and lecturer on children's development through play, and author of articles and texts related to children's outdoor play needs and safe environments. His philosophy of life has evolved around a quote from George Bernard Shaw: "Man does not cease to play because he grows old; man grows old because he ceases to play!" Thus, after "work" there is always a daily dose of social and physical interaction with friends and family. There is always time to play.

 

References

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Groos, K. (1909). The play of man. New York: Appleton.

Jambor, T.(1986). Risk-taking needs in children: An accommodating play environment. Children's Environments Quarterly 3(4) 22-25.

Jambor, T., & Gargiulo. R. (1987). The playground: A social entity for mainstreaming. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance 58(8) 18-23.

Jambor, T., & Guddemi, M. (1993). Can our children play? In M. Guddemi & T. Jambor (Eds.), A right to play: Proceedings of the American Affiliate of the International Association for the Child's Right to Play, Sept. 17-20, 1992, Denton, Texas (pp. 3-5). Little Rock, Ark.: Southern Early Childhood Association.

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Pellegrini, A. D., & Perlmutter, J. C. (1988). Rough-and-tumble play on the elementary school playground. Young Children 43(2) 14-47.

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Piaget, J. (1932). Play, dreams and imitation. New York: Norton.

Piaget, J. (1970). Piaget's theory. In P. H. Mussen (Ed.), Carmichael's manual of child psychology Vol. 1, 703-732. New York: Wiley.

Sluckin, A. (1981). Growing up in the playground. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Stevenson, H. W. (1992). Learning from Asian schools. Scientific American 267(6) 70-76.

Sutton-Smith, B. ( 1971). A syntax for play and games. In R. Herron & B. Sutton-Smith (Eds.), Child's play ( pp. 298-310). New York: Wiley.

Tomporowski, P. & Ellis, N. (1988). Effects of exercise on cognitive processes: a review. Psychological Bulletin, 99, 338-346.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Press. University