Home > Cognition, creativity, curriculum, Education policy, Fun, Psychology, teacher information > The Virtue of Recess – Unstructured Play, Cognition & Child Development

The Virtue of Recess – Unstructured Play, Cognition & Child Development

Recess is a historical staple of elementary education in America and it is still not uncommon to see children granted small amounts of time for “free play” or educational games in the primary grades. Unfortunately, this practice is under fire in recent years. Some critics of public education or politicians would prefer to see that time devoted to increased amounts of formal, skill-drill exercises; but aside from the fact that test-prep activities quickly hit the point of  diminishing returns in terms raising a school district’s aggregate mean test scores ( a little is good, a lot is not) the so-called ” wasted free time”, is actually neurologically vital for the optimum cognitive development of children’s brains. It’s good for us older folks too but that’s a topic for another day.

A report from the excellent Eide Neurolearning Blog:

Remembering to Play

“Several recent articles remind us of the importance of play. From NPR, Old-fashioned play builds serious skills, and NYT, Taking Play Seriously.Also from the American Academy of Pediatrics (The Importance of Play for Health Child Development pdf : “Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to health brain development…Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, an to learn self-advocacy skills.” An increased in hurried lifestyles and school-based academic performance may leave a child with little unstructured time. In one survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, 30% of kindergarten classes no longer had recess periods

….An additional point made in the NYT article, was the importance of play for the development of the cerebellum. For kids with sensory processing disorders, this is a big one. Sometimes the earliest indication that something isn’t “quite right” is when a child avoids the normal rough-and-tumble play on the playground. That’s why without intervention, a child may accumulate even fewer play experiences and fall even farther behind their classmates with time.”

Read the rest and find additional brain-learning resources here.

While older students do not have “recess”, time for creative, exploratory and imaginative learning activities should be a regular aspect of core academic classses! !!

 The chance to “play” with concepts, solve puzzling scenarios, smash ideas up in a synthesis, articulate new or unorthodox solutions to old problems is a teaching strategy for students to arrive at a deeper understanding of the subject at hand. It trains them to create and evaluate analogies, test the logical soundness of each other’s ideas, debate and experiment. Less structured but goal-directed time is a valuable investment as independent thinking cannot be cultivated in a classroom where every moment is direct instruction and rigidly scripted. At some point, the training wheels have to come off if we are to discover which students can ride on their own and which ones need additional guided practice.

Furthermore, in relation to “play”, music, the arts, sports and drama play a critical role in brain growth and do not represent “frills” but a central modality for integration of concepts, application of learning and generation of insight. As subjects, they are the brain’s “Right” side exercises to the ” Left” side’s analytical-logical reasoning provided by mathematics instruction and science classes.

As a society, we have gone berserk on overscheduling children into formal activities, academic as well as extracurricular, to the point where some elementary age kids show signs of anxiety, burn-out and depession or have time with their families that is not devoted to some kind of structured, formal, event. I find that many students lack any real cognitive independence, normal childhood creativity or the ability to negotiate social interactions with peers without hands-on, adult, supervision. A kind of well-meaning, suburban, shelteredness that produces a vaguely “institutional” passivity in many children.

Our students need both structured learning as well as some degree of “space” or “freedom” in order to maximize their intellectual and emotional growth, not either-or.


Time out: Is recess in danger?” Center for Public Education

The Importance of Play… ” – American Association of Pediatrics

“Taking Play Seriously” –  The New York Times

Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills”NPR

“Recess Makes Better Students” – The Washington Post

  1. Samurai
    March 19, 2009 at 3:22 am

    I think it’s so rejuvenating to know that you are using wordpress to do something so neccessary… educate. I enjoyed the article about children at play as well as the youtube video regarding how insanely we are investing in technology only to be considered obsolete by it. This world has some distorted views and values but it’s refreshing to know there are good people still left in the world. Please take a moment to view http://www.timetowakeup.wordpress.com I know all of you will enjoy it.
    Thank you, Samurai.

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