Do We Really Need Recess?

Cheers, laughter, rules negotiations, and groans are the common sounds emanating from the ping pong tables, four-square areas, basketball courts, the wall-ball “court” and the front grassy locations for football and lacrosse. Middle school boys engage in this supervised, but free play, before school, during morning and lunch recesses, and during the time between the end of the day and the start of study hall. Why so much free play? Almost ten years ago members of our middle school faculty took a very hard look at our daily schedule. Unanimously, we agreed that boys in grades 5-8 need time to move around, socialize, and simply take a break from the necessary classroom routines. At the time we made this decision, more and more schools were cutting into recess time to add more to the curriculum. In addition, physical education was being given less and less consideration as a necessity for this age group. Standing up to this trend we increased our recess times, lengthened our lunch block, and increased the amount of time our boys would be in PE classes. After these ten years of increased free play, structured physical education, and added time to interact with classmates we clearly see the benefits of these changes. The “fun and happy” factors so essential to educating adolescent boys is a clear distinctive in our middle school community. So what do other experts and authors have to say about the value of play?

recess2Author Julie Lythcott-Haims states in her book, How To Raise An Adult, “Play is the first real developmental ‘work’ children are supposed to do.” College professor Peter Gray claims that free play is essential to a child’s mental health. He purports that for healthy psychological development, kids must be involved in activity that is freely chosen, directed by the kids themselves, and undertaken for its own sake, “not consciously pursued to achieve ends that are distinct from the activity itself.” He goes on to say that “when there’s an adult there directing things, that is not play.” And another advocate of play, Richard Louv, speaking openly about the adult tendency to tightly structure their sons and daughters’ time suggests that parents and schools may be unintentionally “killing dreamtime.” Going back to my own childhood, play with friends and classmates grew my creativity, imagination, and many times I took on the persona of one of my heroes of fiction, history, or sports. I had no room in my mind for the depressing and anxious thoughts that seem to be so prominent in today’s adolescents.

There are some very specific physical benefits from play. As the obesity crisis among American youth reaches an all-time high, it stands to reason that being active can play a significant role in combatting this health risk. In addition to helping the body stay fit, exercise has significant mental benefits. Exercise results in the release of endorphins, hormones that help promote happiness and good feelings. The combination of the physical and mental effects of play/exercise help reduce stress and depression. Teachers have observed that the periods following recess are characterized by students paying better attention to what is being taught and the disruptive behavior that can be part of the male adolescent blueprint is decreased.

Alison Gopnik in her article in the Atlantic, The Defense of Play, uses research on young rats and other animals to draw some conclusions about play. “Play lets the young learn by randomly and variably trying out a range of actions and ideas, and then working out the consequences.” She further concludes that “the positive consequence is that animals who play are better at generating new possibilities.” When we consider that one of our goals in education is to foster minds that not only think outside-the-box, but also respond to setback in positive and productive ways, recess/free play has to be a significant part of the strategy for reaching these goals. But as Gopnik points out, “the fundamental paradox of play is that in order to be able to reach a variety of new goals in the long run, you have to actively turn away from goal seeking in the short run.” From our adult perspective, that simply means to get out of the way and don’t micromanage, ensure safety, but be the observer of all the good that will take place. Come by anytime to see boys at play and observe all of the life lessons they are encountering. Their joy will soon put a smile on your face; it has certainly done that for me.


How to Raise An Adult – Break Free of the Parenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success – Julie Lythcott-Haims; Henry Holt and Company, LLC 2015

In Defense of Play

Recess: Necessity or Nicety?

Randy Woods

Randy Woods

Mr. Woods is the Middle School Director and has been at St. Paul's in various capacities since 1984. He can be reached at

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