skip to content, health centers and clinics, search, accessibility statement

Healthy Outlook

Recess Exercises the Body and the Brain

By Dr. Diane Dooley

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

As a pediatrician, I consider my vote to reduce recess one of the biggest mistakes I made during my 10 years as a school board member.

At the time the decision was made, supporters of the change told us of pressures to meet state academic standards and suggested reducing time on the playground in order to increase time in the classroom. The No Child Left Behind Act had recently been implemented, and with it, rewards and punishments for schools according to performance on state tests. My colleagues and I reasoned that with reduced recess, we would improve academic performance for our students. Physical education classes and play at home should cover the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity needed per day.

We were wrong.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently advocated for regular recess in its policy statement "The Crucial Role of Recess in School." The statement's authors outline the importance of safe, well-supervised recesses throughout the school day in promoting a child's physical, social, cognitive and emotional welfare. Many children (and adults) need breaks throughout their day so they can stay still and concentrate when necessary. They point out that children who have at least one recess for more than 15 minutes scored higher on the teacher's rating of classroom behavior.

That's right: If your child isn't doing well in the classroom, the solution could be less time in the classroom.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education discourages inactivity for school-aged children longer than two hours. Physical activity plays a vital role in a child's social, emotional, physical and cognitive development. Recess allows a child to mentally decompress and absorb what they've recently learned. It also helps children improve communication and negotiation skills. It teaches them the importance of cooperation, sharing and problem solving.

As a pediatrician, it's easy to see the value of both structured and unstructured play in supporting a child's healthy growth and development. Structured play such as P.E., after school sports and board games are great for exercise, learning rules and developing strategy. Meanwhile, unstructured play like recess, make believe and free play often are better for physical performance and developing motor skills; they also help children reach social and emotional milestones, manage stress and become resilient.

Parents and schools need to work together to give kids the chance to play actively at least 60 minutes every day. The best way to do this is to set aside time both during the school day and after school to play outside.

Here are some ways to support your child in active play:

  • Join your child outside to play. Try taking turns with other parents to supervise your children.
  • Set limits on TV time. Instead, plan to spend the time doing a fun activity outside.
  • Schedule outdoor time just as you would plan a meal. Outdoor play is much more active than indoor play. The best time to get outside is after school during daylight hours. Homework and TV can wait until the sun goes down.

Remember, children chasing each other at recess aren't just improving their health; they're improving their chances in the classroom.

Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at For more health information, go to
About the Author

Dr. Dooley is a pediatrician with Contra Costa Health Services.