The Power of Play: A Closer Look at Recess

Thursday, October 13, 2016

""Ask any GUS student what the best part of the day is and most will include recess. Every Friday I have “big” recess duty. I hurry out at 12:00 on the dot; one minute later and the students will be waiting. They know to wait by the four square court until more than one faculty member is out. Once I arrive, and give the okay, off they run. Some to the fort, some to the play structure, some stay in four square, others head for the basketball court. The possibilities and choices are endless. Such is the life, and purpose, of recess.

At Glen Urquhart, we hold recess as a sacred and very meaningful time. It is, in many ways, part of our curriculum. We rarely keep the students in. Only on the most bitter days of winter, when frostbite is a real possibility, or on rainy days, if the rain is so hard that play is impossible, do we stay in. For indoor recess, each classroom hosts a different activity. Over the years, the choices have included yoga, movement and music, Legos, building, board games and puzzles, and drawing. While many of the students enjoy the variety of indoor recess, the physical and social benefits of outdoor recess are missed by all.

Over the past few years, much has been written about the importance of play and how free play has been slowly disappearing from our children’s lives. Gone are the days when children arrived home from school and immediately scattered in the neighborhood, called back home hours later only because it was time for dinner. Unfortunately, most of us do not live in that world anymore. Instead, we rush our children from place to place. The change is, in many ways, our own doing.  Our lives as both parents and professionals have gotten busier, and juggling parenthood with work outside the home is quite a challenge. This balancing act—finding time for play dates, music lessons, sports, homework, and more—is both a necessity and what we dream of for our children. The opportunities our kids have are incredible. Imagine being introduced to karate, Mandarin, or glass blowing when you were a kid. Unfortunately, some research says that our efforts to offer our children rich and diverse extracurricular lives, while enabling us to work full time, is also creating stressed and overwhelmed children.

So, I come back to play and recess. What do our children experience during this time? Let me give you a snapshot of the fun and learning that happens—what I saw and heard during my recess duty yesterday. I watched seven students devise a modified baseball game. They have a whiffle ball bat and a tennis ball.  Not one of the students can really hit the ball far, and the bases are just spots on the grass, but for 25 minutes they play a carefully crafted—albeit with frequent rule revisions—game of baseball. Nearby, crouching near a flower bed, a group of eight or so children are building fairy houses. In pairs or on their own, they collect leaves, twigs, flower petals, and grass and carefully craft delicate and intricate homes. I overhear one child say, “We need to build a strong house to last through the winter.” By the fence, a group of boys are building similar structures. Using small twigs and sticks, they construct bridges, a campfire, and houses. Beyond the baseball game, the fourth graders, boys and girls, are busy with a capture and chase game. I notice a strong and spirited tug-of-war whose intended outcome is a trip to “jail.” When I ask if everyone is comfortable with the play, they look at me in puzzlement before responding with a resounding “Yes!”

On the four square court, a group of six kids are laughing loudly and just as loudly debating the rules of four square. There are many “do overs,” and once a student is “out” the line moves quickly, so everyone is getting lots of playing time. Behind Braemar, multiple activities are happening at once. A group of third graders are playing a family game. Each child has a role: sister, baby, mother. Suddenly, I hear loud sobs.  A first grader rushes over to me with concern. “Someone is crying. Can you hear it?” We investigate and quickly realize that it is the “baby” playing her part in the game. Once the tears are acknowledged, they quickly gallop off on imaginary horses. Over on top of the play structure, two very active groups are whipping down the two slides. Small interventions are occasionally needed to avoid slide collisions, but for the most part the children are practicing their own negotiating and debating skills with one another.

We also see lots of busy activity in the fifth grade fort. There are probably 10 or 15 students hard at work in the fort community. The fifth grade fort is located behind the athletic shed next to the play structure. Every fall, the fifth graders are introduced to this space as their own. And quickly, without any prompting from adults, the community grows. Small groups of students start building houses and drawing property lines. With some teacher guidance, rules about inclusion are developed and the play grows from there. This recess, a group of students appear to be discussing some cultural norms and expectations. A student is busy sweeping out her structure, and another group is searching the woods and collecting sticks for a building.

Finally, after barreling over the bridge, about 25 kids race to the big field, to the swings, to another ball game, to climb under the bleachers, to sit quietly in small groups.  

So why is this free time so important?  What do our children learn from play, and what do we learn about our children by letting them play without our guidance or interference?

  • Play allows children to use their creativity and build their imaginations.
  • Play allows children to engage and interact with the world around them.
  • Children develop new competencies and thus strengthen their confidence and resilience.
  • Play builds healthy bodies.
  •  When allowed to direct play, children develop problem-solving skills, find areas of passion, and learn to share, negotiate, and solve conflicts.
  • Recess reduces stress because it lets kids release their energy in healthy ways.
  • Recess feeds the brain. Research has shown that most of the brain is activated during physical play.
  • Students are more on task when they return to their classrooms, so recess helps with focus and attention. With improved focus, students are better able to retain new information.

We also learn that play is important at every age.  Whether you call it play, or discovery, or inquiry, play allows all children the opportunity to plan, take risks, make mistakes, practice, and discover. This time, this opportunity, this right of childhood is worth holding onto.


Sarah Kotwicki

Director of Lower School

Whitney Buckley