The Benefits of Play

Title: The Benefits of Play

 Submitted by Mary Decker

 From Chapter 11 – Peers, Friends, and Play


            Play is an integral part of every child’s life.  It makes for happy, imaginative kids.  Surprisingly, its benefits are bountiful in the academic realm as well.   The text defines play as, “behavior that has no immediate function and is pleasurable, spontaneous, flexible, and internally controlled” (Bergin & Bergin, 2012).  There are many types of play that vary in their cognitive involvement and amount of social involvement.  These range from functional play with repetitive movements, to prearranged, rule-based games.  A child could simply passively watch someone play, or play cooperatively with a group goal.  The particular kind of play in which a child participates can be an indication of his/her cognitive and social development (Bergin & Bergin, 2012).

            Some researchers advocate scaffolding play to help students develop the skills inherent in more mature recreation.  They posit that, due to our changing cultural constructs, students have less natural opportunities to develop play skills.  “Massive changes in the culture of childhood—such as the disappearance of multiage play groups, the increase in time children spend in adult-directed activities after school, and so on—mean that, for many young children, early childhood settings are the only place where they have the opportunity to learn how to play” (Bodrova & Leong, 2012).  This theory is quite Vygotskyan in nature and suggests that modeling play allows students the opportunity to advance through the stages and thus gain skills more quickly than in an unstructured setting.

            There are other things that educators can do in the school setting to promote healthy levels of playtime.  One is to promote and support recess.  This can be difficult when a child has unfinished work that must be completed, or when the removal of recess is one of the only effective punishments for a child.  However, the benefits of recess far outweigh these advantages of restricting it.  These include cognitive, social-emotional, and physical advantages.  For example, research shows that recall is improved when instruction is chunked, instead of given in lengthy doses.  Recess provides an opportunity for previous knowledge to be organized within the brain.   At recess, children can also practice their prosocial skills, such as negotiation during free choice situations and conflict resolution when issues arise (Jarrett & Waite-Stupiansky, 2009).           

            Despite these positive outcomes, recess is definitely not a certainty in all schools, even at the elementary level.  A 2006 survey given by the Centers for  Disease Control found that daily recess is only provided in 79% of elementary classrooms (Adams, 2011).  Recess time may be restricted due to new demands on schools through No Child Left Behind.  Administrators want students to have more time to learn the core subjects.  Recess is also frequently withheld for behavioral reasons.  However, the disparities inherent in the statistics are frightening:  “You are less likely to get recess if you are African-American (39 percent don’t have recess, compared to 15 percent of whites), living below the poverty line (44 percent of poor children don’t have recess versus 17 percent of others), or struggling academically (25 percent of kids who scored below the mean on a standardized test versus 15 percent of those above did not have recess), according to research in a 2003 issue of Teachers College Record” (Adams, 2011).  On an individual level, teachers must be very careful about their use of taking away recess as a punishment.  This opportunity for play is necessary for the well-rounded development of all children.



Adams, Caralee.  (2011).  Recess makes kids smarter.  Instructor

 Bergin, C. C., & Bergin, D. A. (2012).  Child and adolescent development in your classroom. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.

 Bodrova, Elena and Leong, Deborah. (2012).  Assessing and scaffolding make-believe play.  Young Children.  28-34.

 Jarrett, Olga and Waite-Stupiansky, Sandra.  (2009).  Recess – it’s indispensable!  Young Children.  66-69.


Discussion Questions:

1.  What sorts of information have you been able to glean about your students through your observation of their playtime?

2.  How do you feel about scaffolding playtime for young children?  Is it beneficial or micro managerial?  Why?

3.  How do you feel about the current amount of recess given in your school setting (if any)?  Can you detect a difference in behavior and learning in your students post-recess?

4.  Have you even taken away recess as a punishment?  What was your reasoning?  Do you regret that decision or stand by it?

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9 Responses to The Benefits of Play

  1. Janet says:

    Have you even taken away recess as a punishment? What was your reasoning? Do you regret that decision or stand by it?

    I don’t work at the elementary level, so I haven’t had the opportunity to have recess in my schedule. However, I have one daughter that has been through the elementary years and one that is currently in 4th grade. Both of my daughters have had their recess time shortened or taken away due to the behavior of others in the classroom. I feel very strongly about not using recess as a punishment. I believe there are many other ways to handle undesired behavior and taking away recess is sometimes the “easy” way to address the undesired behavior. It simply isn’t fair to withold this time from an entire class of children. I don’t feel the children are allowed enough physical activity or social time in the first place, so to take away what little they are given is absurd. We cannot expect young children to sit still and listen without giving them breaks that include physical activity and time to freely socialize with their peers. The students that are displaying inappropriate behavior are often the same students that must have the opportunity for physical activity in order to be sucessful. I met one elementary teacher that didn’t take recess away, but if a student displayed concerning behavior, she would walk with the student during recess. I feel that is more just than withholding recess from the entire class or taking it away entirely for that student. If a student doesn’t get his work completed, then possibly arrangements could be made to work on it after school, changes could be made to minimize disruptions, or additional help could be provided if it continues to be a problem. Research has shown that physical activity can reduce stress and anxiety, and with all the demands being placed upon our students, we cannot afford to take away the few outlets they are provided within the school day.

    • Jimmie Jo says:

      I agree…I don’t like to take recess from the entire class. My girls have always complained and felt that it wasn’t fair as well. I do have some in my class that walking with them at recess would reinforce the behavior.

  2. Katie Williams says:

    Have you even taken away recess as a punishment? What was your reasoning? Do you regret that decision or stand by it?

    Our school is not allowed to withhold recess from students based on behavior displayed in the classroom. However, we can have students walk during recess instead of having free time to play. Normally, I will have students walk laps and then play so that they are moving the entire recess time. I do think that students are not given enough recess time. I also think that too many teachers take away or restrict recess for unreasonable expectations they have set forth for their students. That is why I make sure to incorporate Brain Breaks throughout the day to ensure that students have ample time to get energy out. Our 1st grade team did notice that our students had difficulty calming themselves after our recess time, so we opted to change recess to the very end of the day. I think this option certainly has pros and cons. The biggest pro is that students have something to look forward to at the end of the day. Obviously the biggest con is the pent-up energy that students have by the time they get to the end of the day.
    I have heard of many schools opting to have recess before lunch. I’m sure there is research to back this up, but I have not read about it. Any thoughts?

    • Jimmie Jo says:

      How do you feel about the current amount of recess given in your school setting (if any)? Can you detect a difference in behavior and learning in your students post-recess?

      I teach first grade. We have about 20-30 min. of recess a day. It is absolutely not enough. When I began teaching 17 years ago, we had 2 recesses a day. We had one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Our schedule is so busy that I am not sure where we would fit 2 recesses now. We have scheduled all of our core subjects in the morning before lunch time. I have continued to make sure that I incorporate activity and brain breaks into our routines. I feel that it really helps with focus. Our recess is towards the end of the day because that is when it would fit in the schedule. I don’t really detect a huge difference in behavior after recess. They know what our schedule is and usually settle in very well after we get back in the school building.

    • Nicole Gaffney says:

      Katie, I definitely agree with you on your stance about not taking recess away. I like to find other forms of “natural consequences” and use recess as the LAST option. Even then, I only take a few minutes here and there. I like the ideas about walking instead of sitting out. As a PBS leadership member, I might suggest that to my team.
      Unfortunately, there are still teachers in my building that do use recess as a punishment. I have had special area teachers like music and art take away my whole class recess before. This was extremely displeasing to me and parents of my students. Luckily we have addressed the situation and it does not happen as much.
      That is great that you have the flexibility to move your recess time. Our schedule is so locked down that we are told when our recess is. We have one 20-minute recess after lunch. Some of the grade-levels have their recess before lunch, but I do not think it was research based as much as what the schedule allowed. Is there a way you could break up your recess time into two different times? My school used to offer a 15 minute, after-lunch recess and then another 10 minute recess at the end of the day for my team. 10 minutes goes by rather quickly, but at least it still gives them something to look forward to. Just a thought!

  3. Andrea says:

    How do you feel about the current amount of recess given in your school setting (if any)? Can you detect a difference in behavior and learning in your students post-recess?

    I teach in a junior high, so recess is not an option. Students do get some physical activity in their PE classes throughout the year. Students alternate between four weeks PE class (everyday) and two weeks in a classroom to study health. My school has two 40 minute periods at the end of Wed/Thur called instructional focus. This allows students to work with teachers for reteaching/tutoring purposes and to participate in clubs/activities (only if they are caught up academically). One club offered is “beast mode” which is a fitness club. This club meets twice a month. The teachers were challenged this year to try and incorporate “brain breaks” for the students throughout the day. A “brain break” is a short burst of physical activity. An example would be some sort of instructional game where students are up out of their seats. At the upper elementary school (5-6th building), several teachers got together and formed a fitness club during the months of January – March. The goal was to get the students more active during the winter months. Students came before school and after school to participate in fitness activities. The teachers also took time once a week to teach the students about making good nutritional choices. One activity that the students really enjoyed was making healthy fruit smoothies. Several teachers presented a professional development about the need for brain breaks, especially in the upper grades where students are primarily sedentary. The presentation discussed several European schools and a couple of American schools who put in place short bursts (10-15 minutes) of physical activity throughout the day. They found that students brains readily received information after physical activity and it especially improved reading comprehension. The studies also revealed that there were less behavioral issues documented throughout the day when students were given an opportunity to expend energy. I am a firm believer in this, because I teach science and have used physical activity consistently over the past 15+ years to reinforce what I am teaching. Planning physical activities throughout my lessons help students burn of excess energy and boredom from sitting too long. It helps wake them up and I have noticed many students are more receptive to information being taught after a “brain break” with physical activity.

  4. Leslie says:

    Have you even taken away recess as a punishment? What was your reasoning? Do you regret that decision or stand by it?

    At my school, 1st through 3rd graders have a 30 minute recess each day. There are many teachers that keep students in from recess as both a punishment and as a time to finish classwork. I do not believe in keeping my students in from recess when they only have 30 minutes to start with. My husband has his degree in physical education and he is adamant that children need to be outside for their entire recess each day. Unfortunately, our administrators do not care if teachers use recess time or not. I know that the teachers that use recess as make up classwork time, say that they don’t have any other time in the day to get students caught up besides at recess. I just try to be creative and work it in throughout the day or before or after school.

    At lunch, if a student is talking when the light is on red, they will get a ticket. Each ticket is one lap that they have to walk at recess. If they get 5 tickets, they have to walk laps the entire recess. If the whole class is talking, they will get class tickets and the whole class has to walk laps. I don’t think it is an effective punishment but it is better than them taking away minutes of their recess. At least they are still active and getting fresh air.

    I agree with Janet that most of the time, the kids that are in trouble for their behavior are the ones who need recess the most. I know the students in my class that have trouble with self-control and making good choices, need to get their energy out! There are other ways to discipline a student without taking recess away!

  5. Sinclair says:

    4. Have you even taken away recess as a punishment? What was your reasoning? Do you regret that decision or stand by it?
    I work with adult male inmates. We are not allowed to withhold recreation from an inmate except under specific situations such as for their own protection from another inmate or when they are under lockdown for punitive management for a limited time only. The reasoning for only rarely withholding recreation are that each person is thought to do better with exercise, socialization and a change of scenery/location daily. Boredom is reduced and the inmate behavior is improved considerably. During emergency situations when recreation is withheld for even a day, I have noticed that overall inmate attitude and behavior is reduced considerably. To those that are locked down twenty-two hours per day, recreation is the highlight of the day. As a staff, we have noticed that participating in daily recreation improves performance in GED classes, jobs and greatly reduces violence against staff and other inmates.

  6. Pingback: Is It Too Late to Play? | janetkwest

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