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Recess May be the Key to Positive School Climate


A new study confirms that high-functioning recess may be an important key to not only improving our children’s physical health, but also creating a positive, inclusive and safe academic environment.

Recess and play have been recognized by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) as an important part of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical well-being, and they defined criteria for high-quality recess in a 2013 policy statement. According to AAP, high-quality recess requires having appropriate games, space, and equipment available to students, and adults that intentionally support students’ development of pro-social skills.

Researchers from the University of California at Santa Cruz and Stanford University have examined how implementing a high-functioning recess contributes to positive overall school climate in low-income elementary schools.

The study, “Playing Fair: The Contribution of High-Functioning Recess to Overall School Climate in Low-Income Elementary Schools,” published in the Journal of School Health, focuses on six San Francisco Bay Area schools during the 2009-2010 school year. The schools all faced academic challenges, with a low percentage of students who were proficient in Math or English Language Arts

Playworks, a nonprofit organization that operates in 23 cities across the U.S., was brought into each school. Playworks sends trained, full-time coaches into low-income elementary schools with the goal of improving recess by providing opportunities for safe, meaningful play and physical activity. Coaches are trained to work with students and establish games with sets of rules, introduce conflict-resolution tools and encourage positive language and inclusive behavior. This system is different from physical education classes in the sense that students can choose any of the available activities to participate in, or suggest another activity they wish to initiate.

Of the six schools observed, researchers reported that four schools fully established high-functioning recess according to AAP’s criteria. The success of the programs was influenced by the quality of the coach and their ability to establish a positive relationship with students, and teacher buy-in for Playworks. The researchers observed that teachers who were trained earlier in the year embraced the program more fully than those trained later, or not at all.

Eighty-nine percent of teachers surveyed in all six schools agreed that there was an improvement in recess organization. A teacher from one school commented: “It’s more of a structured, fun environment…you can see that they’re playing soccer, whereas before, you weren’t sure what they were playing,” the study reports.

According to the teachers and principals surveyed during the study, students’ problem solving skills improved throughout the year, and students were better able to manage disagreements themselves without escalation. Teachers reported that students felt more welcome, included and safe. Many teachers also noticed that students who had previously chosen to stay inside during recess were now participating.

Eighty-seven percent of teachers at the four high-functioning recess schools reported there was less or much less conflict at recess, and around half of the teachers at the same four schools reported more positive language and less bullying among students. One teacher told the researchers: “They’re using ‘Hey, good job, nice try,’ instead of ‘Ha ha, you’re out’.”

These fundamental shifts to overall school climate occurred in just one year, demonstrating that adding a high-functioning recess can quickly have a significant impact on students and teachers. “Instead of seeing recess or play as ‘nice but not necessary,’ many came to see constructive play and organized recess time as supporting rather than competing with their classroom achievement goals,” the study’s authors explain.

“Educational leaders should focus on student recess experiences as part of any plan to improve school climate.”

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