In florida, a coalition of parents known as “the recess moms” has been fighting to pass legislation guaranteeing the state’s elementary-school students at least 20 minutes of daily free play. Similar legislation recently passed in New Jersey, only to be vetoed by the governor, who deemed it “stupid.”

When, you might ask, did recess become such a radical proposal? In a survey of school-district administrators, roughly a third said their districts had reduced outdoor play in the early 2000s. Likely culprits include concerns about bullying and the No Child Left Behind Act, whose time-consuming requirements resulted in cuts to play. [1] Disadvantaged kids have been the most likely to be shortchanged: According to a 2003 study, just 56 percent of children living at or below the poverty line had recess, compared with 83 percent of those above the poverty line; a similar disparity was noted between black children and their white peers. [2]

The benefits of recess might seem obvious—time to run around helps kids stay fit. But a large body of research suggests that it also boosts cognition. Many studies have found that regular exercise improves mental function and academic performance. [3] And an analysis of studies that focused specifically on recess found positive associations between physical activity and the ability to concentrate in class. [4]

In one series of experiments, researchers manipulated recess start times: Some days children were let out at 10 a.m., and other days at 10:30. The kids’ attentiveness decreased when they had to wait longer for recess, and rebounded after they played. [5] And when fourth-graders in a recess-free school were given a weekly recess, another group of researchers found that they had an easier time staying on task and were much less fidgety. [6] These experimental findings are bolstered by an analysis of 10,000 questionnaires filled out by third-grade teachers: Even a single 15-minute daily recess was correlated with more-positive ratings of classroom behavior. [7]

Perhaps most important, recess allows children to design their own games, to test their abilities, to role-play, and to mediate their own conflicts—activities that are key to developing social skills and navigating complicated situations. [8] Preliminary results from an ongoing study in Texas suggest that elementary-school children who are given four 15-minute recesses a day are significantly more empathetic toward their peers than are kids who don’t get recess. [9]

If it weren’t such a journalistic cliché to invoke Finland’s highly ranked (and widely fawned-over) school system, I might end by noting that Finnish kids get more than an hour of recess each day. More surprising, though, is the fact that in East Asian countries like China—the land of nine-hour school days and weekend cram classes—most schools give kids a 10- or even 20-minute break after each class, or about every hour. Maybe they’re onto something.

The Studies:

[1] Burris and Burris, “Outdoor Play and Learning” (International Journal of Education Policy & Leadership, Nov. 2011) ^

[2] Roth et al., “What Happens During the School Day?” (Teachers College Record, April 2003) ^

[3] Etnier et al., “The Influence of Physical Fitness and Exercise Upon Cognitive Functioning” (Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, Sept. 1997) ^

[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance” (July 2010) ^

[5] Pellegrini et al., “The Effects of Recess Timing on Children’s Playground and Classroom Behaviors” (American Educational Research Journal, Winter 1995) ^

[6] Jarrett et al., “Impact of Recess on Classroom Behavior” (The Journal of Educational Research, Nov./Dec. 1998) ^

[7] Barros et al., “School Recess and Group Classroom Behavior” (Pediatrics, Feb. 2009) ^

[8] Pellegrini and Bohn, “The Role of Recess in Children’s Cognitive Performance and School Adjustment” (Educational Researcher, Jan./Feb. 2005) ^

[9] Texas Christian University LiiNK Project, “End of Year Report” (2015–16) ^

Read the original story in the December 2016 issue: