What Makes Recess Fun for Kids?

In many inner-city schools, engaged adults are 'key gatekeepers' to playground fun.

kids in a school yard

Getty Images/Ben Welsh

"Not all recess is created equal," says William Massey, an assistant professor at Oregon State University's College of Public Health and Human Sciences. Massey is the lead author of a new study that looks at the quality of recess and how it affects a child's emotional, physical, and socio-emotional wellbeing. It turns out that just tossing kids outdoors for mandatory playtime doesn't guarantee a positive result.

Massey and his team of researchers measured recess quality at 25 schools across four U.S. regions using a number of criteria that included physical and environmental safety, space and equipment, opportunities for play and inclusion, and access to diverse options for play. Playground equipment is assumed to be a given by many adults, but Massey found it is often grossly lacking. From a press release:

"'I've been on playgrounds where the kids go outside, and it's a parking lot with high fences, no play structure, no balls, no jump-ropes, no chalk—they're literally outside, and there's nothing to do,' he said. He has also seen large holes from construction, broken glass, used condoms and needles in play spaces."

Kids' recess experiences, the study says, could be improved by adults "doing a safety sweep" each morning to ensure the playground is safe to use, and setting up soccer fields so that kids can jump right into a quick 10- or 15-minute game before returning to their classrooms.

The Role of an Adult

Something else Massey suggests is that adults (presumably teachers) interact more with kids when they're on the playground. "One of the most important things is: Do adults model and encourage positive interactions with the students, and do they actually engage with the students themselves? The more adults engage with and play with students at recess, the more kids play, the more physical activity there is and the less conflict there is."

Now, I must admit that when I first read that statement, I reacted strongly—and negatively—to it. It went against everything I understood to be a recipe for successful play, when children are left to their own devices, free to imagine and invent, forced to resolve their own disputes with classmates without adult intervention. Adults trying to join games on a playground seems like a terrible idea.

I reached out to Massey to find out more about what he meant, and he was able to provide some important context. He tells me,

"This work has primarily been in urban, inner-city, and low-income elementary schools. Often times, these playground are resource-starved and lacking green space. As a more extreme example, I have been to schools in which children literally go out onto a blacktop parking/lot for 15 minutes: no loose equipment, no play structures, no green space."

The other important factor to keep in mind is that recess is typically very short (too short!)—a mere 10 or 15 minutes, which isn't long enough for children to get into complex games of their own devising. Massey points out, "Children don’t really have time to become engrossed in play, and there is often not enough resources (space or equipment) to accommodate the number of children out at once." In situations like these, having an adult who's willing to jump into play—participating, not just overseeing—can make all the difference.

We are referring, Massey says, to "adults either playing themselves (think of the recess teacher who hops into a game of tag, and then 15 other kids who weren’t doing anything join because their favorite teacher is playing; or the principal who comes out and plays pitcher in kickball, and all of a sudden you see kids who have never played kickball at recess joining in); or adults simply encouraging and modeling children to play, engage, be creative."

Adults, like it or not, are what Massey describes to me as "key gatekeepers" to children's recess time. They're the ones who set policies around how much recess kids get, who goes out, when it happens, what the rules are, and what equipment and space are made available.

"Consistently we see that children want play free of adult restrictions (i.e. they don’t want the rule enforcer out there telling them what they can or cannot play), but they don’t necessarily want play free of adults (they want adults to help facilitate social equity, play with them, build relationships, etc.)," Massey said.

The Need for Better Design

This helped me to understand the research better, but it still left me feeling disappointed that so many American schoolyards exist in such a sad state. Problems are guaranteed to arise when kids are given so little to work with, hanging out in static playgrounds that have been made safe to the point of total boredom. Of course, kids have nothing to do when they have nothing to play with, only things to play on and around—and only then if they're allowed.

A 2017 study in New Zealand found when dynamic loose parts are introduced to school playgrounds, bullying rates actually decrease because kids are so distracted by everything they have to play with that they stop directing pent-up energy toward victims. Reuters reported, "After two years, children at the schools with modified playgrounds were about 33% more likely to report pushing and shoving during recess than kids at schools with traditional playgrounds, researchers report in Pediatrics." 

Pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom agrees quality play can be enormously helpful to children. As the author of "Balanced and Barefoot," Hanscom is an expert on the role of free play on child development. Recently she called for an emphasis on play throughout the post-COVID recovery period. "Play, especially outdoors, is exactly what children need (more than ever) in order to connect and heal through this collective trauma together," she wrote in the Washington Post.

With this in mind, creating vibrant and exciting playgrounds should be a top priority, especially in the urban, inner-city neighborhoods that Massey visited. It matters more than ever after the past year and a half of educational upheaval and countless hours spent online. The best thing educators, parents, and school boards could do right now is to invest in fabulous loose-parts-based playgrounds that would promote active, imaginative, free outdoor play, while helping the kids to reconnect with their classmates (as shown in this study) and to perform better academically. 

Do I sound overly idealistic? Perhaps. There's not much indication that things are moving in that direction. Massey acknowledges my statement that children tend to play better without adult oversight, responding, "I wouldn’t disagree at all that, when left to their own devices, children are beautifully creative and imaginative; [but] I think there is a disconnect" when it comes to thinking about recess in U.S. schools. He adds: "We expect it to be a time where children can play and create, but we really do not set up a system in which that is possible."

Then we must make changes to that system. Our children deserve it, especially after the past year. It's the least we can do to rebuild and regain the ground they've lost.

View Article Sources
  1. Massey, William V., et al. "Recess Quality and Social and Behavioral Health in Elementary School Students." Journal of School Health, 2021, doi:10.1111/josh.13065

  2. Farmer, Victoria L., et al. "Change of School Playground Environment on Bullying: A Randomized Controlled Trial." Pediatrics, vol. 139, no. 5, 2017, p. e20163072, doi:10.1542/peds.2016-3072