More than Four Reasons for Recess

At play, a child “behaves above his daily behavior, … as though he were a head taller than himself.” 
~Lev Vygotsky

As we witness the decline in recess, as well as outdoor play throughout preschool and elementary schools across the world, we are ever more grateful for San Juan del Sur Day School’s expansive outdoor space and cherished outdoor playtime.

San Juan del Sur Day School views recess and outdoor play as a cornerstone of its curriculum. An emphasis on play is encouraged via multiple breaks throughout the day. Each age group begins the day with a 30-minute recess. This gives children the opportunity to move first thing in the morning, socialize on their own terms, and prepare for their day. The fresh air and movement actually help children to follow directions, attempt to learn more independently and solve problems on their own. After a period of guided, group, or center time, each age cohort then participates in a second 30-minute recess, after snack, but before lunch. This is a great opportunity for children to reboot, get the wiggles out and again, engage in nature, try out new skills, and embrace their independence.

Adults at school lead by example, demonstrating how to resolve conflicts thoughtfully and compassionately. However, during playtime, “children are given a degree of independence to sort thru their conflicts, create their own games, and negotiate with one another, without an adult hovering or controlling the situation,” says Julie Speier, director of San Juan del Sur Day School.

Overly “Attentive adults can ruin games even if they don’t intend to intervene. Children perceive them as potential enforcers of safety, solvers of conflicts, and audiences for whining; and this perception invites the children to act unsafely, to squabble, and to whine. Play requires self-control, and the too-obvious presence of adults can lead children to relinquish their self-control,” says Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College.[ii]

To learn about their own physical and emotional capabilities, children must push their limits within reason. How high can I swing? Where can I climb safely?  Children must experiment with the physical world to learn about it.  An essential task of development is appreciating how we fit into the natural order of things—animals, plants, the weather, etc. And more importantly, to what extent does it present problems, such as hard surfaces, the hot sun, or thorns on bushes? Furthermore, the changing nature of the outdoors makes it an incredibly stimulating and multi-sensory place to play. Children who gain knowledge and appreciation of nature are more likely to become adults with a greater sense of environmental awareness.

After lunch, children have a third opportunity for recess and outdoor play, while waiting for the bus or digesting lunch. Play is encouraged with climbing equipment (both a rock wall and other areas), tricycles, wagons, scooters, large fields and turf for soccer and other sports, a toddler playground with swings, and more.

In addition to free time on the playground, teachers also lead their students in guided outdoor time via nature walks, scavenger hunts, gardening, and construction. Students in first thru fifth grade also enjoy a short afternoon recess, as well as plenty of outdoor playtime during enrichment hour each day from 3-4 p.m.

So why all the play and recess and how does it help our children to learn? In a thoughtful piece for the Washington Post title “Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today,”[iii] pediatric occupational therapist, Angela Hanscom, wrote: “In order for children to learn, they need to be able to pay attention. In order to pay attention, we need to let them move.”  In fact, at San Juan del Sur Day School, when a teacher notices a disruptive or fidgety student in the classroom, rather than chastising or punishing the child, the student is encouraged to take a quick run outside.  Researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder and the University of Denver found in a 2014 study that 6-year-olds who spent more time in unstructured play showed more signs of strong executive functioning and decision-making skills. Those skills are supportive of strong social relationships, which researchers have linked to academic success throughout a student’s school career.[iv]

According to a position paper released by the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education: “In allowing a mental change and release of energy, recess may facilitate subsequent attention to more academic tasks and minimize disruptive behavior once students return to the classroom; recess, therefore, becomes an important element of classroom management and behavior guidance.”[v]  Recess contributes significantly to the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development of the young child:

1) Physical Development:
If students are given the chance to move around and be active, they return to the classroom more attentive and able to concentrate on the tasks presented. This change enables learning to take place more efficiently. Through active play, young children learn about their bodies’ capabilities and how to control their bodies. One of the most apparent benefits of recess is the opportunity for sheer physical activity and the practice of physical skills, such as running, climbing, jumping, chasing, traveling, batting, kicking, catching, balancing, hanging, swinging, stretching, pushing, and pulling.

2) Emotional Development:
Recess may act as an outlet for reducing anxiety and serve as a means by which children learn to manage stress and gain self-control. During recess play, children also learn the art of expressing themselves to others, and begin rehearsing behaviors and practicing skills. Children learn about their own abilities, perseverance, self-direction, responsibility, and self-acceptance.

3) Social Development:
Recess promotes social learning and development for children by offering them a time to engage in peer interactions in which they practice and role-play essential social skills. Through play at recess, children learn valuable communication skills, including negotiation, cooperation, sharing, and problem solving as well as coping skills, such as perseverance and self-control.[i]

4) Cognitive Development:
Children learn through play. Children develop intellectual constructs and cognitive understandings through the hands- on, manipulative, exploratory behavior that occurs during play episodes and play opportunities. Play context provides the most appropriate support or scaffolding for children as they develop skills.

Recess and play are an integral element of San Juan del Sur Day School.  Our campus at Finca las Nubes has given us the opportunity to provide a multitude of settings for play, exploration, and learning.  We feel strongly that learning happens well beyond the confines of a classroom and that play is essential to the growth and development of happy, healthy children.






[iv] University of Colorado at Boulder. (2014, July 22). Natural-terrain schoolyards reduce children’s stress, says study. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 20, 2016 from

[v] NAECS/SDE Position Statement: Recess and the Importance of Play. National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education