Recess Quality and Social and Behavioral Health in Elementary School Students

  • Journal of School Health
  • July 27, 2021

William V. Massey PhD, Janelle Thalken, MS, Alexandra Szarabajko, MS, Laura Neilson, MPH, John Geldhof, PhD

High quality recess contributes to the executive function, emotional self-control, resilience, and positive classroom behavior in elementary school children. 

Citation: Massey WV, Thalken J, Szarabajko A, Neilson L, Geldhof, J. Recess quality and social and behavioral health in elemetnary school studtns. J Sch Health. 2021; DOI: 10.1111/josh.13065


Over the past decade much attention has been paid to school-based recess and the implications of recess on child  development. Several influential groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics1, the Centers for Disease Control  (CDC), and SHAPE America2 have cited recess as a crucial component to the school day and elevated the potential  cognitive, academic, social, emotional, and physical benefits. However, in considering the possible benefits associated with recess, the majority of research findings have focused on recess as instrumental to achieving minutes of physical  activity. This lens has led several states to adopt laws requiring a minimum number of minutes for daily recess without focusing on the quality of that time. 

The quality of recess (e.g., physical and emotional safety, student engagement, adult engagement) is likely a major determinant in facilitating the social and emotional benefits recess can afford. The primary purpose of this study was to examine the relationship between recess quality and social, emotional, and  behavioral outcomes in children. 

Key Findings 

This study moves beyond an examination of benefits related to the amount of recess time and instead is the first to systematically study the benefits based on the overall quality of recess. 

High quality recess significantly predicted the following student behaviors:

  • Executive functioning: The cognitive skills that help a child focus attention, remember details, solve problems, and make plans.  (p-value=.021)
  • Emotional self-control: Ability to resist immediate temptations and avoid acting on impulse in response to environmental changes.  (p-value=.016) 
  • Resilience: Ability to overcome adversity, quickly recover from mistakes, cope with change,  and solve problems.  (p-value=.016) 
  • Positive classroom behavior: These behaviors include adaptability (e.g., able to transition), functional  communication, leadership, social skills, and study skills  (i.e., behavior important to school success).  (p-value=.030) 

Importance of Findings from this study

Recess has been largely overlooked as a lever for improving students’ social and emotional well-being and classroom  behavior. By critically understanding and investing in what happens at recess, school leaders and policy makers can  directly improve student outcomes in areas such as resilience and emotional self-control that are barriers to healthy and  positive development, as well as learning. This study highlights the importance of focusing on what happens at recess, including how students are encouraged to engage with each other and how adults are prepared to model and support  students in positive ways. 

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