What if you had to work eight hours without a break? No mid-morning second cup of coffee. No idle chitchat around the water cooler about what happened on Lost last night. No five-minute mental vacation in the afternoon. Just work.

Call the union! Hit the picket line! Take this job and (you know the rest).

That’s exactly what many schools are asking of their students, eliminating recess as a scheduled part of the school day. Last year, the National Parent Teacher Association partnered with the Cartoon Network to launch Rescuing Recess, a campaign to get parents, teachers, children’s advocates and even kids to help ensure that recess still gets its due time somewhere between reading, writing and arithmetic.

According to www.RescuingRecess.com, more than 40 percent of elementary schools nationwide have eliminated or greatly shortened students’ playtime. Due to budget cuts, lack of supervisory staff and an increased focus on academic standards and test scores, millions of American children no longer scamper across the schoolyard to play dodge ball, hot potato or freeze tag. But school counselors agree that recess is more than just “free time.” They claim it’s a necessary outlet for children to develop emotionally, cognitively, socially and – of growing concern, since one out of five children is now obese – physically.

“I’ve been arguing for years that play is a critical component to childhood,” says Christopher Sink, an expert in child development and a counselor educator at Seattle Pacific University. “The research is contrary to what (schools) are doing. I think the reason why they are cutting recess is that they want more instructional time. They are not educating the whole child anymor, they are looking simply for test scores.”

American Counseling Association President Marie A. Wakefield agrees that schools should have a holistic approach to student education and development. “I advocate for those activities that bring balance to the mental, physical, emotional and social growth of children,” says Wakefield, who has been working in education as a school counselor, teacher and administrator for more than 28 years. “I believe that play can be a powerful tool for promoting group leadership skills. It not only heightens the energy level – a valuable, limitless resource – but it promotes enthusiasm, group approval, acceptance, creativity, teamwork, adventure, challenge and personal satisfaction.”

Sink, a member of ACA, is strongly opposed to the idea of eliminating recess from schools. If anything, he thinks the time dedicated to recess should be increased. “Play and imitation play – all the things kids do on the playground, especially elementary-school-age children – facilitate cognitive development,” he says. “It not only facilitates cognitive judgment but also the development of language. So play is critical to cognitive, social and psychosocial development.” He adds that school counselors need to advocate for unstructured playtime and should be prepared to present research in support of the effort. Sink suggests counselors who know that their schools may be considering the elimination of recess hold an in-service for faculty, staff and administration on the importance of play, not just recess.

“One of the other problems is that when you give kids choices, they may end up sitting in a computer lab instead of interacting with one another,” Sink says. “The key is to have kids play – actual play – whether it be organized sports or hopscotch or having toys out for them to play with. That’s how they learn rule development, taking turns and basic social skills – by negotiating and working with each other.”

Mary Pat McCartney, an elementary school counselor at Bristow Run Elementary School in Prince William County, Va., agrees. For more than 18 years, she has watched children interact on the playground. But in 2005, the county reduced recess time at its schools from 25 minutes to 15 minutes. McCartney says there was a noticeable change both in the students themselves and in their ability to stay focused.

“It’s hard for them to stay ’on’ and stay working without a break,” says McCartney, a member of the American School Counselor Association, a division of ACA. “Recess is a chance for them to release. Developmentally, it’s inappropriate to eliminate or shorten it. Kids need to be able to run around, be active and get their juices flowing. They need that physical activity.”

Additionally, there are other benefits to recess, McCartney says. For instance, many teachers use recess to encourage students to pay attention down the homestretch. “There are very few incentives for us to use in school,” she points out, “and a lot of times (recess) does a really good job of motivating kids to finish their work or to stay focused for a few minutes longer to grasp a concept. Then they can have some release time.” During the final push before state testing last spring, McCartney says she also used recess to keep her students on track. “I’ve used it as successfully with a chart with a point system where students would earn points for being on time, having their homework finished or having good behavior in the cafeteria,” she explains. “And when they earned so many points, I would take them out for an extra recess. The kids really appreciated it that extra time, and the teachers appreciated the help, too.”

McCartney also sees recess as an opportunity for children to build self-esteem and confidence. “There are some kids who may not be real successful in math or social studies, but they get outside and they can hit a ball or shoot a basket and it gives them an opportunity to shine where maybe they weren’t shining in the building,” she says. “That helps them feel better about themselves – something that they can do well – and it helps when the other kids in the class see this student do something well.”

School counselors can also use recess as a diagnostic tool by watching what is happening on the playground. They can observe which students are playing together and if an individual student is isolated or bullied. McCartney utilizes this tactic to get a feel for her students’ social development.

“Seeing students interact really gives you a different picture than any other time,” she says. “The classroom is structured and the lunchroom is structured and even the hall, but when they are out on their own and it’s free play outside, that really is an opportunity for everybody to find a place socially – or not. As a school counselor, I can get a pulse for what’s going on with the kids, and I know if I need to check in on a particular student.”

Both McCartney and Sink agree that school counselors should be on the forefront of this debate, promoting the importance of unstructured playtime. The Rescuing Recess website lists talking points that school counselors and other student advocates can use to support recess policies. Here are a few:


  • Research shows that attention requires periodic novelty: The brain needs downtime to recycle chemicals that are crucial for long-term memory formation.
  • Children learn more effectively when their efforts are distributed over time rather than concentrated in longer periods.
  • Play is an active form of learning that unites the mind, body and spirit. Until at least the age of 9, children’s learning occurs best when the whole self is involved. The senses of smell, touch and taste and the sense of motion through space are powerful modes of learning.
  • A study found that fourth-graders were more on-task and less fidgety in the classroom on days when they had recess, with hyperactive children among those benifiting most. Psychologists have found that children, especially boys, are more restless and show less concentration when their normal recess period is delayed.


  • Children permitted to play freely with peers develop skills for seeing things through another person’s point of view – cooperating, helping, sharing and solving problems.
  • The playful aspects of recess activities, which include choice, spontaneity, social interaction, creative use of time and problem solving, provide children with a rich context that fosters development in multiple aspects. Play gives children a chance to learn, consolidate and practice skills necessary for further growth and learning.
  • Much of what children do during recess, including making choices, developing rules for play and learning to resolve conflicts to keep the game going, involves the development of social skills.


  • Can physical education class be substituted for recess? The National Association for Sport and Physical Education says “No.” P.E. provides a “sequential instructional program” related to physical activity and performance, while recess provides unstructured playtime where children “have choices, develop rules for play … and practice or use skills developed in physical education.”
  • Studies reported that children who lead sedentary lifestyles suffer increased health risks.
  • Physical activity improves general circulation, increases blood flow to the brain and raises levels of norepinephrine and endorphins – all of which may reduce stress, improve mood, induce a calming effect after exercise and perhaps, as a result, improve achievement.

The Rescuing Recess website offers a three-prong approach – “Kids Get Involved,” “Parents and Teachers Get Informed” and “Everybody Gets Animated” – that provides action-oriented information as well as tool kits and volunteer information.

“The campaign to rescue recess by having parents, teachers and students involved is a good way to ensure that everyone understands the benefits of an activity that affects the well-being of children physically, mentally, emotionally and socially,” Wakefield says.

School counselors might want to check out the Rescuing Recess website and give kids a break.