Make Time For Recess To See Kids Thrive

By Renata Simril
President, Play Equity Fund
In the complicated world of public education, where academic achievements often take centerstage, there’s a critical aspect of whole child development that has been overlooked: the importance of play.

Play, in all forms, is the cornerstone of social-emotional learning, especially during recess or structured playtime.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) encompasses a range of skills and competencies that help individuals understand and manage their emotions, set, and achieve goals, build positive relationships and make responsible decisions.

These skills are fundamental to personal growth, well-being, and success. While time in class provides students with knowledge, SEL from recess equips them with the tools to navigate life’s challenges effectively.

"Recess provides a rich and diverse set of experiences that shape a child’s emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and happiness."

- Renata Simril

Why recess is so important:

Building Relationships – Recess is a natural setting for children to form friendships and positive relationships. Through play they learn to cooperate, communicate and resolve conflicts. These interpersonal skills are vital for forming bonds, understanding others and collaborating.

Emotional Regulation – Playtime allows children to experience a range of emotions – joy, excitement, frustration and even disappointment. Managing emotions is a crucial component of SEL. Recess provides a safe space for children to practice self-regulation and develop emotional resilience.

Conflict Resolution – On the playground, conflicts are inevitable. Whether it’s a dispute over a game or a simple misunderstanding, children learn to resolve conflicts during recess. These experiences teach them negotiation, empathy and problem-solving skills.

Self-Expression – Through imaginative play, children can express themselves creatively. Whether through art, storytelling or role-playing games, recess encourages self-expression, helping children develop a sense of identity and self-awareness.

Taking Initiative – Recess allows children to make choices about how they spend their time. They can initiate games, lead activities and set boundaries. These experiences foster a sense of autonomy and responsibility, both essential SEL components.

Unfortunately, the importance of recess has been undermined in recent years. In some educational settings, recess time has been reduced or even eliminated in favor of more instructional time or used as punishment for bad behavior. While the intention may be to improve academic outcomes, this approach neglects the role that recess plays in whole child development.

Reduced recess time can lead to negative consequences. Extended periods of academic work without breaks can lead to increased stress and anxiety among students. Recess is a crucial opportunity for students to release pent-up energy and relax, improving their focus in class. Less time for play also means fewer opportunities for kids to develop SEL skills. Without recess, they miss the critical experiences that help build relationships, manage emotions and develop important life skills.

Recess is a vital part of a child’s daily physical activity. Eliminating recess – or reducing the time kids can play – can contribute to sedentary behavior, which is detrimental to their physical and mental health.

As an advocate elevating the critical role sports, play and movement provide in improving physical health, mental wellness and academic success – in addition to its role in developing SEL competencies – I am thrilled Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law SB291, introduced by State Senator Josh Newman.

The bill requires, commencing with the 2024–25 school year, recess be provided by a public school operated by a school district or county office of education, or a charter school, at least 30 minutes on regular instructional days and at least 15 minutes on early release days.

As the mother of a son diagnosed with ADHD, I’m glad a key provision of the legislation also prohibits school staff from restricting a pupil’s recess unless there is an immediate threat to the physical safety of the pupil or the safety of one or more of the pupil’s peers. Recess, P.E., and lunchtime play are critical moments for my son and many like him to release the ‘wiggles’ and regain focus.

I’m hopeful educators and administrators do not see this new legislative mandate as a burden, but rather an opportunity to incorporate an effective tool that contributes to better learning outcomes and positive classroom environments. It’s a win-win for everyone.

The CDC has several resources to guide educators and put strategies for recess into practice. There are several organizations working with school districts across California, such as Playworks and FitKids, that can serve as a plug-and-play partners to help schools or educators incorporate recess.

The connection between recess and social-emotional learning is undeniable. Recess provides a rich and diverse set of experiences that shape a child’s emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and happiness. By recognizing the value of recess in promoting SEL, we can ensure that our educational system nurtures not only academic excellence, but also the holistic development of every child.

So, lace up those sneakers for a round of hopscotch, join a game of four square, take five minutes for yoga, and grab a dodgeball for P.E., because your mental well-being – and that of your students – will thank you.