by Yojani Fatima Hernández • IDRA Newsletter • April 2001

As a child in elementary school I looked forward to recess with excitement. I wanted to play tether ball, hopscotch, jump rope, freeze tag and I loved to climb the monkey bars. I wanted to be with my friends and be outside in the open air away from the confines of the classroom. I wanted to play. I did not realize I was learning socialization and motor skills while I was having fun.

During recess children practice and apply the things they may have learned in class or at home. According to Pellegrini and Glickman, “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 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, children lose an important educational experience” (1989).

Debate over playtime

Some believe that time in the classroom is more important or valuable than time on the playground. According to Benjamin O. Canada, the superintendent of Atlanta schools, “We are intent on improving academic performance and you don’t do that by having kids hang on monkey bars” (Johnson, 1998).

Although this is a rigid view of education, Superintendent Canada is not alone in his ideas. Many educators feel that academic achievement would be more easily achieved if students spent the entire day focusing on that specific goal. I suggest recess serves the physical, educational and social needs of children and therefore fosters academic success.

It is almost impossible to keep active, curious and exuberant elementary school children focused specifically on one goal for an entire seven-hour period. In fact, to any child, it would be considered torture to keep them in a classroom all day only to be released at lunch and the end of the school day.

Dr. Anthony Pellegrini, a professor of child development at the University of Georgia, argues that prolonged periods of confinement in elementary school classrooms can lead to increased fidgeting, restlessness, and a subsequent inability to concentrate (Pellegrini and Davis, 1993).

That is not to say that the sole purpose of recess is to let children blow off steam. It is essential that children be given the opportunity to expend energy and interact with one another in meaningful ways. Recess is incredibly valuable to students and to teachers. Play allows children to express ideas and feelings, obtain new knowledge and develop oral language skills as they interact with objects and the people around them.

Play as a vehicle for learning

The work of Piaget and Vygotsky asserts that development occurs as a result of the child constructing meanings through interaction with their environment (McCollum, 1994). Play is the vehicle for learning and through play children are able to answer their own questions and test their own limits in ways that are important to them. Consider the girl who ventured to the top of the monkey bars. She calls to you “Mira que alto llegué! [Look how high I got!]” She questions herself on whether she can do it, she starts climbing to test this and finally she finds her answer: She does it! (Bauer, 1996).

During recess children are able to develop their cognitive skills and learn to deal with social situations. For example, during a game of tag children learn cooperation. Pellegrini and Glickman assert: “to the extent that the play requires cooperation they 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, the game ends. This reciprocating role is a powerful predictor of the ability to cooperate and view events from different perspectives” (1989).

We also have to keep in mind that children resort to physical means of communication sometimes because they do not have the verbal skills to express frustration and other feelings. Thus, playing is an important part of children’s learning how to interact with their environment and with their peers (Hernández, 1998).

According to the Texas Education Agency’s Pre-kindergarten Guidelines: Physical Development, children also develop and foster fundamental gross and fine motor skills during play. Movement is essential to a young person’s life, especially in developing necessary skills to function throughout life.

Through movement and activity, children become aware of their physical space and begin understanding how their bodies function in space. Later, through practice, children develop greater control of their gross-motor manipulative skills, such as throwing, catching, bouncing, and kicking. As development progresses, children become more adept in fine-motor skills, including object-handling activities, using a computer mouse, cutting with scissors, and drawing (1999).

Play benefits educators

During recess teachers can observe children on the playground and assess patterns of behavior, development of gender roles, and social interactions. This is an extraordinary opportunity to see children outside the confines of the classroom and observe how they interact with one another in an unstructured environment. “What the teacher learns through careful observation of the children playing during free times could prove invaluable for curriculum enrichment and give teachers insight into children’s socio-emotional and psychological needs” (Johnson, 1998).

Not only does recess offer teachers a view of the whole child but it also assists teachers in keeping children focused in a healthy and educational way. The National Association for the Education of Young Children maintains that unstructured play is a developmentally appropriate outlet for reducing stress in children’s lives and research shows that physical activity improves children’s attentiveness and decreases restlessness (1997).

Recess has never been a waste of time. It benefits both teachers and students and is essential to the healthy development of all children. When I think back on my educational experiences, both good and bad, the most profound experiences were during recess. I learned how to deal with difficult situations, I learned how to tie my shoes, I learned how to count to 20, and I learned how to make friend.

These experiences were not the extent of my learning but they were a very important beginning. I remember being asked by my second grade teacher “What do you like best about school?” and I remember shyly answering “recess.”

I was curious as to how much things may have changed since I was in elementary school so I asked my nephew, “What do you like best about school?” And without so much as a hesitation or a pause he announces in a loud clear voice “Recess!” Children love to play and it is in their best interest and ours to allow them the space and time they deserve to express themselves.


Bauer, Hilaria. “Scientific Literacy is Child’s Play.” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 1996).

Bredekamp, S. (Ed.). Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8 (Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1987).

Foyle, H.C., L. Lyman and S.A. Thies. Cooperative Learning in the Early Childhood Classroom (National Education Association, 1991).

Hernández, Yojani. “Child’s Play,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 1998).

Johnson, J.E. (1998). “Playland revisited,” Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 11(1), 82-88.

McCollum, Pam. “Examining the Three Rs: Readiness, Redshirting and Retention,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 1994).

Pellegrini, A. and P. Davis. (1993). “Relations between children’s playground and classroom behavior,” British Journal of Educational Psychology, 63, 88-95.

Pellegrini, A. and C. Glickman. (1989). “The educational role of recess,” Principal, 68 (5), 23-24.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children. “The Value of School Recess and Outdoor Play” (1997). Retrieved from the Internet January 25, 2001,

Texas Education Agency. “Pre-kindergarten Guidelines: Physical Development,” (Austin, Texas: TEA, 1999 ).

Winsler, Adam and Berk, Laura. Scaffolding Children’s Learning: Vygotsky and Early Childhood Education (Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1995).

Yojani Fatima Hernández, is a research assistant in the IDRA Division of Evaluation Research. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at

[©2001, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2001 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]