Adult Play at Recess Can Help Kids

Aug 28, 2018

Credit Courtest Will Massey

As kids head back to school, attention is usually on the academics: teachers planning the first lessons, and parents making sure students haven’t lost too much ground over the summer. But a new study draws attention to an often overlooked part of the school day: recess.

It turns out that little break after lunch – on average – is responsible for a quarter of kids’ daytime physical activity. But not all students are taking advantage of the opportunity. And, it turns out, two things that can boost activity levels during recess are giving kids more time and getting adults more involved.

“We see that the more active children are, whether it’s their school day or home during play time, the more their brains are primed to learn,” William Massey, assistant professor at Oregon State University and lead author of the study, said.

It turns out physical activity is not just great for learning, but for regulating emotional and behavioral responses too. So, what does an ideal recess look like?

First, Massey said that it’s important to look at the safety and structure of the environment: Is it safe, and free of hazards like glass? And do they have green space to play in?

Second, Massey suggested looking at student behaviors. Are they standing around, or being active or are they engaged in play? Are they being inclusive? And are they able to navigate and initiate games and play themselves without adults?

A third area that Massey pointed to is adult engagement and supervision. There needs to be adult supervision on the playground, but more than that, they need to be engaged. “So are they promoting a positive climate or are they modeling engagement in physical activity in play? Are they modeling appropriate conflict resolution skills? Are they supporting the students needs?”

Adults can help in other ways too. Children who have experienced trauma and who may be disengaged during recess can benefit from an adult. Kids naturally gravitate to adults who play, so it may help make recess-time less intimidating for some kids.  

It's also been established that girls can be less active than boys during recess. Massey's study suggested that adult involvement can get girls more involved. "There is additional research that really looks at hierarchies on the playground and how social cliques get formed on the playground. There's a lot of evidence to point to if teachers are involved, some of those hierarchies are flattened and then girls become more active."  

Massey acknowledged that some might say that kids should just be left alone to play, but made this point: “We're not saying that adults should be out there telling kids what to do at recess. But the key and the ideal is that they're engaged and that they're interacting with the children and that they themselves are having fun." 

Recess, he said, should really be an extension of the learning environment.