Does recess really improve classroom behavior?

ResearchBlogging.orgWhen I was in elementary school, we had two recesses every day: 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the afternoon. Plus, we had a 30-minute lunch period, and as soon as we finished eating we were free to go outside and play until the bell rang.

So I was a little surprised when our kids started elementary school 30 years later and found that there was almost *no* recess. Even at lunchtime, they all lined up and headed straight for the lunchroom. When they finished (after just 20 minutes), they had to march right back to the classroom for more lessons. The only physical activity they got at school was P.E. class, which happened two or three times a week, and usually involved very structured "fitness" activities like jogging or calisthenics. (I had P.E. every day at school, in addition to recess.)

Was I just spoiled as a kid? Or do recesses actually serve an educational purpose? It's a lot to ask six-year-olds to sit still for an entire school day, but perhaps they're up to the challenge. And maybe my kids' experience isn't actually representative of a national trend to eliminate elementary-school recess. A recent study led by Romina Barros made national headlines, proclaiming that "Recess improves classroom behavior." We thought we'd take a closer look at the study and see if the mainstream accounts were accurate.

The researchers analyzed a very large data set collected as part of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which follows over 15,000 children who started kindergarten in 1998-1999 (which happens to be the same year Nora started kindergarten). The children were from schools across the country, both public and private, and the group spanned all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. The data for this study came from 2001-2002, from the children who were now in third grade. About 11,600 children qualified for the study.

The kids' teachers answered questionnaires about how much recess was offered in their schools, how well-behaved the kids were, class size, and so on. Parents gave family income, education levels, and other demographic information.

The recess data came in the form of total number of recesses and in number of 15-minute intervals of recess. So my school with its 2, 20-minute recesses would have been reported as 30-45 minutes per day, considered "a lot of recess" under this study. My kids' school would have counted as "none/minimal break." Thirty percent of students in the study fell into this classification. Only 20 percent had "a lot of recess." Of the kids with "none/minimal break," 64 percent had P.E. class twice or less per week.

Does recess time depend on the region of the country you live in? Here's that data:


As you can see, most kids where I live now, in the South, have little or no recess. In the West, where I went to elementary school, only 11.5 percent of kids have little or no recess. Public school kids were significantly less likely to have recess than private school kids, as were kids from poorer households.

So does recess really cause kids to behave better in class? Despite what the USA Today headline implies, this study cannot show that. What it did show is that having recess is associated with better classroom behavior ratings. The teachers rated their class's behavior on a scale of 1 to 5:

  1. Misbehaves very frequently and is almost always difficult to handle
  2. Misbehaves frequently and is often difficult to handle
  3. Misbehaves occasionally
  4. Behaves well
  5. Behaves exceptionally well

This graph compares the amount of recess to teacher behavior ratings:


So indeed, kids with more recess were rated as behaving significantly better. Although the difference looks small, remember that we're talking about thousands of kids here. Also, the difference between a 3 ("misbehaves occasionally") and 4 ("behaves well") rating is probably a tangible one. Even after controlling for socioeconomic status, race, and location of the school, recess still correlated significantly with good classroom behavior.

But of course, we still can't say just from correlation data that recess causes better classroom behavior. It might be that schools with poorer-performing students tend to remove recess in order to attempt to get them to improve: that the bad behavior leads to removal of recess, rather than the other way around.

However, there have been experimental studies on smaller groups that varied the time of recess in fourth-grade classes and found that students were more fidgety and less attentive right before recess than they were after recess, so it does seem likely that having less recess time may be responsible for at least some part of the bad classroom behavior these researchers observed.

The researchers add that the No Child Left Behind Act has led some schools to replace recess with classroom instruction, a tactic that may turn out to be counterproductive if recess really does cause better classroom behavior on a broad scale.

Barros, R., Silver, E., & Stein, R. (2009). School Recess and Group Classroom Behavior PEDIATRICS, 123 (2), 431-436 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2007-2825

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Though probably not related exactly, while traveling with a 2 year old grandchild, her parents and I found that an occasional "burn off energy" stop makes the trip more fun for all.

At one stop, the granddaughter literally jumped up and down for at least 2 minutes. After that, her mother and I played "catch" with her. She would run from one to the other and give us a kiss before running back to the other. I have no idea how long this lasted. After that, her father took her for a walk.

When we finally got back into the car (which I was more reluctant to do than my granddaughter, but was told I was too old to whine) she was happy with her sippy cup and cheerios and content watching a video about the alphabet.

With nearly 40 years experience as a mother and grandmother, I think pent-up energy is going to explode one way or another -- better it be in running and jumping than screaming tantrums.

It's also possible that the only real variation is in the teachers' attitudes, isn't it? The South tends to have a more authoritarian structure - hence the lack of recess. So the Southern children may behave exactly the same as Western children, but loosey-goosey Western teachers and uptight Southern teachers view the same kind of class in a different way. I think you're right that this correlation does not do enough to prove causation.

Having a chance to blow off steam seems like it would be really good for children, though, even if it didn't measurably improve behavior. And they've done plenty of work on office jobs, which is where the whole concept of the "power nap" improving productivity came from in the '90s. It's probably not too much of a stretch to think that recess would improve cognitive abilities among children as well.

Since when does any animal thrive if it is caged without opportunity to move for long periods of time?

How does this study compare to other animal studies?

Thanks for this timely post. my kids are finishing up their elementary school tenure this year. In the past several years we've seen a deterioration in recess time (and yes, we are in the south). Intuitively, as a parent and as a professional, I knew this to be a big mistake.

I am a new visitor and hate to argue "common sense" on a scientific site, (yes I know "common sense" is often wrong), but I am amazed this subject is even up for debate in our school systems. Just as there is now overwhelming scientific evidence that we need good/enough sleep, I posit that any good educational or work regimen should include some breaks for relaxation and rejuvenation. I cannot imagine how negative it would be to my work routine if I was unable to relax and take a few breaks throughout the day. 20 minutes for lunch?! That borders on criminal!

Does recess maybe reduce obesity? Many kids loath PE but will be very active at recess.

Umm, as an adult I know that periodic work breaks help me revitalize and refocus my energies.

To imagine the same is untrue in children is simply foolish.

I wonder how student attitudes toward school are affected by a lack of recess. (I know my kindergartener loves his recesses. And the one time I ended up at his school during recess time and watched him, I could see that it was a great combination of physical activity and imagination.)

It always struck me as backasswards when teachers took rowdy kids and kept them in at recess (either at the individual or class level). Given that it did seem to happen quite a lot, I don't think anything about causation can be said about this correlation.

As another possible confounding factor, poor kids probably also tend to have less well trained teachers. I wonder if the teachers in the South are comparably competent at classroom management as teachers in other regions?
(PJM's point is also a valid one to consider, although I would not describe Midwestern teachers as "loosey-goosey").

Warren- do you schedule your breaks for the exact same time each day? Or do you take a break when you need it? I'm not sure the benefits of *having* to "take a break" (and for some kids recess is the most stressful time of the day) are the same as the benefits of *opting* to take a break (and choosing how you spend that time).

Anyway, it seems like it would be respectably ethical to do a crossover intervention study on recess.

I think it would be interesting to see what similar studies say. For example, the research that says that 15 minutes of activity a day is associated with improved focus in adults (if I interpreted that correctly). Also of interest is to see the interactions of activity with children labeled as hyperactive or attention deficit. How about PE? Does it work better than recess, which might just be a "break" and not necessarily physical activity?

"I would not describe Midwestern teachers as "loosey-goosey"

I thought it was Western, not Midwestern. But I was not clear anyway. What I meant is that people who are part of a more authoritarian structure, as in Southern schools, are more likely to think behaviors are "bad" than people in less authoritarian structures, as in Western schools.

"Only" 2 or 3 PEs a week? In my country we have only 1 PE a week for quite some decades now, and they are kinda optional too.
Although we have 15 minutes recess after every lesson (6 lessons on a day per average) and a 30 minutes lunch break.

By Cauchynator (not verified) on 21 May 2009 #permalink

No Child Left Behind Act has led some schools to replace recess with classroom instruction, a tactic that may turn out to be counterproductive

I'm pretty sure NCLB is counterproductive in and of itself...

As a substitute teacher, one of the most effective techniques in my bag of tricks is to recognize that misbehavior/fidgeting often just indicates a need for some movement & stretching. When one or two kids start to lose their focus & fidget or goof off; I'll have the entire class stand up and do some quick stretches & even hop or jump a little. Then, we all laugh, sit down again & refocus. If one or two kids exhibit that behavior when they are supposed to be quietly working, I've taken them off to the side and had them do the same thing. These techniques work; they are constructive rather than punitive; and the kids really appreciate the teacher that first looks for a physical reason for misbehavior & allows them to take care of their needs rather than just punishing them.

Don't think anyone mentioned this, but doesn't recess also give kids a chance to socialize? Isn't that sort of important as well?

Kids do need recess, but maybe several short ones are better than two long ones. Recess behavior starts to break down after ten or fifteen minutes. Then arguments and other poor sport behaviors seem to escalate.

By Gardenfairy (not verified) on 22 May 2009 #permalink

I am currently a middle school teacher and I have noted for a long time that middle school students need that time outside. It is one of the most requested things. The NCLB and its push to fully educate our children have taken us to a place in education where we are raising children with no social skills. Recess is the place during the day where we learn to communicate with each other. Lack of recess contributes to our lethargic society. It is something that needs to be considered a teach tool not a teaching distractor.

By Michael Buford (not verified) on 23 May 2009 #permalink

Having worked in a school, I can tell you that recess is far from a break for any teacher. Kids have to be continually supervised, especially on playgrounds. That means you actually have to *watch* them play for the entire recess period. For a 20-minute recess, it takes about 10 minutes to get ready to go (depending upon the season and the amount of gear required), then another 10 minutes to get ready to return to work. Just because you aren't going for an external recess, that doesn't mean that you can't engage in physical activity or fun within the classroom. Most teachers provide transitional time as well as providing physical breaks for kids as needed.

air quality indoors is much much worse than outdoors.

By maury green (not verified) on 25 May 2009 #permalink

Wow... I can't imagine not having breaks at school. At all levels of school I had 20-25 mins morning tea break and 50 mins to an hour for lunch. Sure, I spent most of my breaks reading rather than running around, and I enjoyed class, but this boggles my mind. And at primary school (elementary) we had ~30 mins "fitness" every day, usually involving large amounts of running around, and in summer one afternoon a week would be sports.

I don't remember how the other kids acted. I remember at high school how the kids acted seemed to correlate the most with which teacher we had.

By katherine (not verified) on 25 May 2009 #permalink

North American public education is several years behind South American private education. That much I can tell you I have learned empirically.

In SA private education seems a lot more focused on educating young citizens about a humongous variety of aspects of home and career life.

In NA public education's main focus seems to be developing social skills, encouraging self-discipline, and offering opportunities to develop team working skills. Actual information takes a back seat.

Simply reducing recess time will not change one system into the other. SA private schools tend to have what that study classifies as "a lot or recess" time. But people are forced to really perform or THEY ARE LEFT BEHIND. Survival of the fittest, not "making basic education degrees meaningless".