Recess key to reintroducing children to schools

It’s crucial to allow soft skills to develop in the playground but so is doing it safely.
May 25, 2020
Recess rethought
Recess is an essential part of reopening

Recess and free time are an essential part of getting children back to school and functioning well. It’s crucial to allow soft skills to develop in the playground but so is doing it safely.

 “Children returning to school will have a greater need for recess and unstructured play, even as schools need to plan recess time in light of infection risks” says Dr Brendon Hyndman of Charles Sturt University. Dr Hyndman is the Australian representative for this international group, which calls itself the Global Recess Alliance.

The group has put together a new statement that outlines how recess can help guide both students and teachers back to a sense of normalcy after months of interrupted routines. Dr Hyndman says he hopes that the statement will “provide schools with strategies that treat a fundamental shift in the approach to recess as essential to a good reopening plan.”

“The stresses that many children have been dealing with are considerable, family stress, boredom, loneliness, anxiety, a lack of physically active and social play - generally a sense of the world having gone awry.” Returning to school can help children to recover, but only if the importance of recess is fully considered, urges Dr Hyndman.

“Recess provides a vital window for physical, social and emotional development - absolute essentials of well-being and learning. That is what decades of education research says, and that is what peak medical bodies like the American Academy of Paediatrics say.”

Canadian representative Dr Lauren McNamara from Ryerson University states that the group’s urgency for this message is deepened by COVID-19. “The impact of the pandemic on schooling across the world is unprecedented for this modern era. Yet when it comes to children and play, this is crucial for coping and healing. The trauma that many students will be processing right now only makes recess more important to their ability to cope and to thrive.”

The group has been working on a set of guidelines and suggestions to help schools integrate recess into their re-opening plans, and to make it as pandemic-proof as possible. Amongst them? Seeing recess as essential to teachers as well students.

“Ensuring there is quality recess time for schoolteachers to get outside, interacting, and moving around will also be essential for their recoveries from uncertainties and stress,” says Dr Hyndman “Teachers have been burdened with many shifts to their roles and expectations during the global health crisis.

“Counting recess as class time for teachers also means we can keep class groups together during recess, and maintain separation between them. Smaller groups reduce transmission risk, but you also get more inclusive class dynamics. Of course, teachers will need their own dedicated break times.”

Many students will be struggling with the changes and the adjustments required, warns Dr Hyndman. “Students may need to release excess energy, their moods might be more changeable, their skills around conflict and cooperation maybe something they are struggling with at this time. Staff should be on hand, on the lookout for those moments when students need help to connect with each other.”

“Recess time is often the only chance for students to freely engage in personal, social and physical exploration via outdoor recreation throughout a school day, and to experience their universal right to play,” says Dr Hyndman. “We strongly advise against excluding children from recess as a punishment for any reason. The development benefits across the board - physical, emotional, social – are too important to every single child.”

The group’s statement sees opportunities for students to be engaged in the dynamics of recess. “Children getting involved in the planning and organisation of different activity choices, fair play rules, we see this as a chance at a participatory role for the students. It means they are taking ownership of their time and getting a deeper sense of the dynamics they are a part of.”

One example, play and sporting equipment involves a transmission risk, but in helping to manage it children can find leadership opportunities. As United States representative Dr Catherine Ramstetter outlines “we advise a need for separate bins of equipment for each class, to be used only during recess. Children can have roles which support their class to keep up with this maintenance, including helping to clean equipment between recess periods. Providing a sense of responsibility can be significant for their learning.”

“When considering how recess can be part of resetting schools as the pandemic recedes, it is not just about necessities such as handwashing stations and disinfecting playground equipment," continues Dr Ramstetter. "It is about the value of recess for its impacts on behaviour, learning, focus, attendance, and on the mood and atmosphere of the school. It cannot be over-emphasised; without recess, there are severe impacts on students’ mental health and well-being. That is why the guidelines we put forward call for at least two, sustained periods of recess, for every child, every day.”

“This is the time to really reassess how schools look at recess, and to consider how vital it is to a whole spectrum of children’s needs," says Dr Hyndman. "It is not a distraction from learning, it is essential to supporting the other forms of learning that we are used to focusing on.”

Image playground by mrkhgk under flicr cc attribution license