Recess and Its Role in Improved Mental Health

In the United States, approximately 6.1 million children (ages 2-17) have a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD (CDC, n.d.). This means that almost 10% of the students in almost any given classroom exhibit difficulty staying on task during instrucional times. Yet, we (educators) often see restricting or even eliminating their movement at an outdoor unstructured recess as the solution.

This is not only counterproductive with regards to immediate results, we are possibly exacerbating mental health issues for children when we limit recess and play for students. Diagnoses of anxiety and depression have increased within school age children in recent years. Additionally, the likelihood of being diagnosed with anxiety and/or depression increases as a student ages (CDC, n.d.).  

According to Gray (2011), the presence of anxiety and depression relates to an individual’s sense of control over his/her life and circumstance. Gray asserts that free play serves multiple purposes, including giving children a sense of control over their lives. Yet, play has declined while symptoms of anxiety and depression have increased. Of interest is that the prevalence of these mental health issues does not seem connected to true crises or trauma for the child but instead to the child’s perception of his/her world (Twenge, Gentile, DeWall, Ma, Lacefield, & Schurtz, 2010). 

So, with this in mind, how do we protect our student’s unstructured daily break? Policy is, in and of itself, not enough (Brickman, 2021). Stakeholders who recognize the value to the whole child are more likely to protect the practice of recess for their students. Does your administration, faculty, and staff exhibit buy-in on this issue? Do your students’ parents value the practice?  Does your community think that it’s indispensable? These are necessary elements for improving the mental health of our students.  We must communicate a clear and consistent message to these stakeholders.   

The whole child?  Do your stakeholders know what this early childhood term means?  If not, let’s tell them that the “whole child” is not just a test score.  No, the whole child is mind, body and spirit or in more academic terms… we value the “whole child” when we consider his/her academic, physical and socio-emotional needs.

So, does recess benefit the “whole child”? While most would attest to a belief that recess benefits students physically (Levine & Ducharme, 2013), the benefits have also been documented across academic domains such as language (Cohen & Emmons, 2017; Stagnitti, Bailey, Hudspeth Stevenson, Reynolds, & Kidd, 2016) and math & science (Bulotsky-Shearer et al., 2014). Further, this unstructured break benefits students in demonstrating improved social skills and self-regulation (Ramani & Eason, 2015; Cavanaugh et al., 2017).  

So, yes.  Yes, recess as an unstructured daily break benefits the whole child. Let’s protect the practice of recess and protect improved mental health at the same time.

Best – 

Charlene Woodham Brickman, PhD

Brickman, C. W. (2021). Recess policy implementation: Beliefs and perceptions of site-based decision-makers. [Doctoral dissertation, Auburn University]. 

Bulotsky-Shearer, R. J., Bell, E. R., Carter, T. M., & Dietrich, S. L. R. (2014). Peer play interactions and learning for low-income preschool children: The moderating role of classroom quality. Early Education and Development, 25(6), 815–840. 

Cavanaugh, D. M., Clemence, K. J., Teale, M. M., Rule, A. C., & Montgomery, S. E. (2017). Kindergarten scores, storytelling, executive function, and motivation improved through literacy-rich guided play. Early Childhood Education Journal, 45(6), 831–843.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, March 22). Data and statistics on children’s mental health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved December 9, 2021, from 

Cohen, L. E., & Emmons, J. (2017). Block play: Spatial language with preschool and 149 school-aged children. Early Child Development and Care, 187(5), 967–977. 

Gray, P. (2011). The decline of play and the rise of psychopathology in children and adolescents. American Journal of Play, 3(4), 443-463.

Levine, D. G., & Ducharme, J. M. (2013). The effects of a teacher-child play intervention on classroom compliance in young children in child care settings. Journal of Behavioral Education, 22(1), 50–65. 

Ramani, G. B., & Eason, S. H. (2015). It all adds up: Learning early math through play and games. Phi Delta Kappa, 96(8), 27-32. 

Stagnitti, K., Bailey, A., Hudspeth Stevenson, E., Reynolds, E., & Kidd, E. (2016). An investigation into the effect of play-based instruction on the development of play skills and oral language. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 14(4), 389–406.

Twenge, J. M., Gentile, B., DeWall, C. N., Ma, D., Lacefield, K., & Schurtz, D. R. (2010). Birth cohort increases in psychopathology among young Americans, 1938–2007: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of the MMPI. Clinical psychology review, 30(2), 145-154.

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