Educators and educational leaders make critical decisions every day about the allocation of the most valuable resource in a student’s education—their time at school. Modern school schedules are designed to optimize learning time for every child, sculpting out minutes for academic subjects while minimizing “wasted” time on nonacademic tasks. As a result, many students have seen a reduction in the amount of time they spend in unstructured activities, such as free choice, recess, and play. Yet the role of play in increasing student learning—not just academic learning, but social and emotional as well—cannot be understated. Both
the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics have made recommendations that children have 60 minutes of physical activity a day as a way to optimize “social, emotional, physical and cognitive development” and that this time should “not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons” (Shammas, 2019). Play is so critical for development that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has recognized play as the right of every child (Ginsburg, 2007). Educators who prioritize play in the school day recognize the benefit of play and value breaks as essential to social, emotional, and academic learning.
The Benefits of Play
The advantages of giving students opportunities to play during school time have been well documented through research. A review of fifty studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that physical activity improves students’ grades, test scores, and academic achievement, and positively affects children’s concentration and classroom behavior (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010). In addition, a Stanford study found that high-quality school recess helps students feel more engaged, safe, and positive about their school day (Parker, 2015). Play helps boost language development, problem-solving, risk management, and independent learning skills. Studies link play to “improvements in academic skills, classroom behavior, healthy emotional attitudes, and better adjustment to school life” (Strauss, 2015).
A Lack of Play
Yet, despite clear evidence of play’s importance, schools still struggle to make time for play in the school schedule. The trend of reducing the amount of time designated for play in schools can be traced back almost two decades to the No Child Left Behind initiative, which emphasized increased learning and intervention in core instruction. Recess was increasingly seen as dispensable (Shammas, 2019). By 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that one-third of elementary schools did not offer daily recess for any grades (Shammas, 2019). As play has disappeared from schools, educators have reported noticeable increases in student misbehavior, anxiety, and off-task behavior (Conklin, 2015). The reduction of play in schools has been counterintuitive to learning.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2010). The association between school-based physical activity, including physical education, and academic performance. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/health_and_ academics/pdf/pa-pe_paper.pdf
- Conklin, H. G. (2015). Playtime isn’t just for preschoolers —Teenagers need it, too. Retrieved from https://time. com/3726098/learning-through-play-teenagers-education/
- Ginsburg, K. R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1), 182–191. doi: 10.1542/ peds.2006-2697
- Parker, C. B. (2015). School recess offers benefits to student well-being, Stanford educator reports. Retrieved from http:// news.stanford.edu/news/2015/february/recess-benefits -school-021115.html
- Shammas, B. (2019). Time to play: More state laws require recess. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/ time-play-more-state-laws-require-recess
- Strauss, V. (2015). Why young kids need less class time—and more play time—at school. Retrieved from https://www. washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/08/21/ why-young-kids-need-less-class-time-and-more-play-time-at-school/