Opinion: When schools open, don’t overemphasize work over play

Leading child development expert from Georgia says recess and play are essential for kids

A professor emerita at Georgia State University, Olga S. Jarrett is a longtime proponent of recess for children.  

Jarrett is considered a foremost authority on recess; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based its recess recommendation in part on her research.

For example, Jarrett performed a randomized study on students who had 20 minutes of recess and students who did not. Those who had 20 minutes of recess a day stayed on task more and were less distracted than their peers who did not have the 20-minute break.

In this guest column, Jarrett explains why play opportunities will be critical when children return to school  following this spring’s shutdowns due to the coronavirus.

By Olga S. Jarrett

One of the joys of childhood is the opportunity to play with other children. I remember twice daily recess in elementary school where we played games, chased one another, and talked with our friends. In sixth grade, some of my friends and I made up and rehearsed a play during recess and convinced our teacher to allow us to perform it for our class.

For several months now, children have been isolated from their classmates causing most of them to crave the opportunity to play with other children. I was struck by the need for group play when our almost-5-year-old grandson came to visit us after two months of home isolation. In the car, he told us we were going to have snack time when we got to our house and that our snack would include cheese and apples.

After snack, he insisted it was play time. When I asked him how we were going to play, he responded, “Hide and go seek.” So his Grandpa and I played hide and go seek with him, until we wore out. Over the weeks he spent with us, he repeatedly talked wistfully about Ezra, his best friend at school, and how they played together outdoors during break time. When school starts again, phonics will be OK, but it will be outdoor play with Ezra that makes our grandson want to go to school.

I have long believed in the importance of school recess because play is valuable for children and because my own research found that recess breaks help children focus. In fact, for many years, I have supported legislation in Georgia that would mandate at least 30 minutes of recess a day that cannot be taken away as punishment.

All young children need breaks in the day, when they can talk with their friends, chase each other, play games, and use playground equipment. And, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, older youths also need daily breaks for exercise and to hang out with their friends. In some countries, including Turkey and Finland, children have 15-minute breaks every hour through high school. In one Turkish high school, I noticed a recess soccer game that halted after 15 minutes to be resumed at the next break, 45 minutes later.

In Georgia, some schools do not have any recess breaks. Sadly, across the nation, black children are less likely to have recess than white children, and children in high-poverty schools are less likely to have recess than children in wealthier schools. Also, teachers in many schools that officially have recess, deny children recess as punishment for infractions such as excessive talking, not finishing their work, or not bringing signed notes from home.

All children need recess. Especially after months of isolation, there will be the temptation to try to “catch up” children academically. But ensuring that all children have a chance to play with their classmates will be at least as important, both for social-emotional health and to increase their focus on subsequent learning.

I am part of a recently organized international group of "play scholars, health professionals, and education leaders." We call ourselves the Global Recess Alliance. As a group, we recognize that sheltering in place has caused social-emotional as well as academic challenges. We state that "recess is the only unstructured time in the school day that provides space for children's physical, social and emotional development, which are essential for well-being and learning. When schools reopen, children will need space to heal from their collective trauma."

How can recess be provided safely? The CDC recommends that classes initially be kept together so there is a minimum of cross-class mixing and that the number of children in a play area at a time be limited. Outdoors is generally considered safer than indoors. Whether or not playground equipment is initially available, children can play group games, jump rope, play with hula hoops, throw balls, draw with chalk, chase one another, and talk with their friends. We include a list of ideas on our website.

For a summary of what the research says on recess, click on the research link in the Statement of Recess on the globalrecessalliance website. If you agree that all children need to play when schools reopen, please add your names to the website's list of supporters. And talk with your school's leadership team about the need for play, especially recess, when children go back to school.