Student Well-Being

Want to Build a Better Recess? Researchers Have a Framework for You

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 06, 2018 4 min read
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Amid mounting evidence that recess can help support student learning, health, and social skills, researchers are taking a closer look at what a “high quality” recess looks like.

“We can’t fully understand the relationship between recess and learning, physical activity, other things until we understand the quality of recess,” said William Massey, an assistant professor of health and human sciences at Oregon State University.

“If kids go out to play at recess and they have green space and equipment ...and the social behaviors are in order and the adults have set up a system that encourages students to be active and play ... then that physical activity is likely to reap benefits in the school day, to their behavior and their learning—and I think the research shows that pretty well,” Massey said. “But when kids go outside and have 10 minutes on a cement blacktop with high fences, no green space, nothing to play with ... when there’s a lot of bullying, a lot of fighting, a lot of negative language, even if the students are physically active, it’s a hard argument to make that they go back into the class ready to learn better.”

That’s why Massey and a team of researchers from the University of Northern Colorado, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Concordia University Wisconsin, and the nonprofit group Playworks Education Energized developed a 17-part observational framework to help school administrators and teachers evaluate their own playgrounds and find ways to improve recess for their students.

The observation tool, published in the journal BMC Public Health, was based on an analysis of about 650 school recess periods in 22 urban school districts nationwide and validated with in-depth observations at 162 additional recess periods in nine schools. It covers aspects of physical safety and structures, adult supervision, student behaviors, physical activity, and transitions to and from class.

The framework gauges the physical structure of playgrounds, such as whether there is basic equipment and whether the playground is free from obvious safety hazards like broken glass. This is one of the “lowest hanging fruit” for administrators who want to improve students’ experiences of recess, Massey said.

“Often we think of fixed equipment, big playground structures, but really, you can spend $300 for jump ropes and kickballs and provide enough equipment to support play at recess,” he said. “Often we see schools where students don’t have anything to play with at recess, and that’s where more problem behavior [like bullying and fighting] occurs.”

The tool also looks at how adults engage with students during recess. At the most basic level, the rating guide looks at how many adults are on hand to watch over the playground: The highest-rated recess would have no more than 35 students for every supervising adult, while the lowest-rated recess could have a student-adult ratio of 75-to-1 or higher. The tool also measures how well adults position themselves to watch the playground area and avoid hidden areas where bullying can take place, and whether teachers encourage sidelined students to get involved.

The downside of students having more structured after-school activities, he noted, is that recess may become one of children’s few periods of free play. “In generations past, it was like, ‘Leave the house, don’t come back until the street lights are on,’ and kids had to figure out how to navigate social relationships on their own,” he said. “I think society today is shaped it in a way where kids don’t always have those early experiences, and so we can’t always expect them to know what to do when we put them outside at recess.”

Playtime: Is More Always Better?

Many of the recent state and local drives to improve recess have focused on simply getting more—or any—time for children to play. As Education Week covered earlier this spring, parents successfully fought a three-year legislative battle to protect and expand recess time in Florida:

But just focusing on total minutes can miss the deeper context of recess at a school, Massey warned. “There are schools in which the 45-minute lunch-recess really works well for kids,” he said, “but I’ve also seen contexts where fights start breaking out after around 15 minutes. I certainly wouldn’t argue for less recess time, but if 15 minutes is the sweet spot at a school, maybe multiple 15-minute activity breaks would be better than trying to have a 30-minute recess that goes haywire in the last 10 minutes.”

The researchers are now working with the nonprofit Playworks to test the recess framework in rural schools, to study inequities in access to high-quality recess, and to understand how different aspects of recess affect students’ social, physical, and academic development.

Photo: Students at P.S. 188 in New York socialize on the playground during the last week of the 2016-17 school year. The school, which is part of the city’s community schools effort, coordinates services like health and mental health supports for its students. --Mark Abramson for Education Week.


A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.