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Shrinking Recess Part 3: Social & Emotional Development
posted by: Melissa | September 18, 2019, 05:45 PM   


Guest Post by Arthur Grant

Today we present the third installment in our blog series, Shrinking Recess. In today’s installment, we list the ways that recess can affect the social and emotional development of our students. For each effect that we list, there will also be a key paper that you can read if you wish to learn more. As always, you can read the entire series at Muddy Smiles. Read on below to see the effects that recess has on social and emotional development.


Most of us have at least a few fond memories of recess floating around, and it’s likely they revolve around fun games that we didn’t realize were a workout at the time. Hopscotch, Horse and a litany of playground classics encourage kids to engage in healthy physical activity that also offers copious chances for bonding and making friends.

Anonymous questionnaires were used to collect data from students in fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth grades regarding their physical activity, peer relationships and self-esteem. After researchers adjusted the data for the bias of self-reporting, the 2010 study still offered demonstrable results correlating physical activity, an increase in self-esteem and an improvement in socialization and peer relationships. (Source)

Key study/paper: Henna L Haapala, Kaarlo Laine, et al. (2014). “Recess physical activity and school related social factors in Finnish primary and lower secondary schools: cross-sectional associations”. BMC Public Health 14:1114. 


Self-esteem is especially essential for our kids. It’s what encourages them to make new friends, try new things and persist in the face of difficulties. We believe in them beyond measure, but it’s key to their academic and social success that they believe in themselves, too. Believe it or not, even here, recess plays an important role.

When 358 fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth graders were assessed via anonymous questionnaire regarding their physical activity, self-esteem and peer relationships, the results advocated hard for the benefits of recess. There’s a correlation between the kind of physical and social play that happens in the schoolyard and the sense of self-esteem our kids need to succeed and feel good about themselves. (Source)

Key study/paper: Kayani S. et al. (2018). “Physical Activity and Academic Performance: The Mediating Effect of Self-Esteem and Depression”. Sustainability, 10(10):3633.


We give our kids everything we’ve got, but they’ll always need one thing we can’t provide – healthy peer interaction. As parents, we can and should facilitate it, but our presence can’t and shouldn’t take the place of age-appropriate friendships that help kids form social skills, learn to moderate emotions and form lasting bonds with others. Recess gives our kids a chance to engage in games that are both social and physical, which builds and improves friendships and can teach valuable peer mediation skills.

The correlation between moderate to vigorous physical activity and academics, mental health and social ability was examined in a study of 17,000 Chinese primary school students. The physical activity of the children, aged 6 – 11, was recorded by their head teacher, while their parents provided ratings of the children’s behavioral, social and emotional issues. When these data sets were compared, it became clear that the kind of physical and social activity recess offers helps kids to improve their interactions with peers, build better friendships and avoid conduct difficulties. (Source)

Key study/paper: Yunting Zhang, Donglan Zhang, Frederick Ho, (2019). “Social-emotional functioning explains the effects of physical activity on academic performance among chinese primary school students: A mediation analysis”. The Journal of Pediatrics 208:74-80.


When kids really enjoy being at school, they naturally do better. Feeling connected to peers, school and community is one of the first ways children learn how to be a part of a society. When they feel a lack of connection to their school and classmates, it’s easy for them to feel isolated, contributing to negative feelings about their school experience. Children who are given the chance to participate in a physically active recess are more likely to feel a sense of “relatedness” to their school and their classmates, leading to more positive feelings toward school.

A self-reporting anonymous questionnaire was given to over 1,000 fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth grade students inquiring about their level of physical activity, friendships and self-esteem. When reviewed, results showed that children who were engaging in the kind of physical and social play recess provides were more likely to feel connectivity with their school and peers. (Source)

Key study/paper: Henna L Haapala, Kaarlo Laine, et al. (2014). “Recess physical activity and school related social factors in Finnish primary and lower secondary schools: cross-sectional associations”. BMC Public Health 14:1114. 


Discovering the world they live in is how children learn and grow. While our natural desire is to protect them at all times and at all costs, a little bit of freedom is essential for our kids’ personal growth. They need to be able to interact with the world, challenge themselves physically and navigate the complex social situations that develop as they enter school. Recess gives kids time to explore their imagination through free play, test their physical ability and find their place socially.

As one scholarly review notes, risk taking behavior is an inherent part of human existence – there’s some element of risk in everything we do, and taking early risks helps kids learn their limits and avoid anxiety. They’re also learning their capabilities, and may surprise themselves by discovering a hidden talent. What we know for sure is that giving kids free playtime for self-exploration is something that makes these discoveries possible. (Source)

Key study/paper: Jambor Tl. (1986). “Risk-taking Needs in Children: An Accommodating Play Environment”. Children’s Environments Quarterly 3(4):22-25. 


All kids go through a me-first stage when they’re little. It’s a natural part of identity development, but as they grow, our kiddos quickly learn that it’s not all about them. Learning to feel empathy, engage in compromise, be cooperative, share with others and negotiate are all essential social skills learned in childhood that we carry throughout our lives. When kids take on roleplaying games during recess, they engage in the kind of communication and compromise skills they need to be successful socially.

A study on the forms and possible functions of childhood play pinpoints situations where children use empathy to ensure that all of the players in a game with roles have a good time. The “big kid” doesn’t always have to be the bad guy, and the girls don’t always have to be princesses. Respectful negotiation and willingness to share are values and abilities that are naturally promoted by social play, because they facilitate positive relationships with peers. (Source)

Key study/paper: Pellegrini, Smith. (1998). “The Development of Play During Childhood: Forms and Possible Functions”. Association for Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 3(2) 


Starting school is a big deal for both parents and kids. For us, it means letting our babies go just a little bit as they tackle one of their life’s first big challenges. For them, it means learning new social skills, tackling physical challenges and adjusting to spending daily time in the classroom. This transitional period isn’t always simple, but there are ways to make it easier.

A longitudinal study which was performed on a group of kids throughout their first year of school discovered that both boys and girls adjusted better to their first grade experience when recess periods with games were provided. This is a unique period of establishing peer interactions and finding their place socially, and games with physical and social elements help kids to form the kind of social bonds that make adjusting to new circumstances easier. (Source)

Key study/paper: Pellegrini, A. et al, (2002). “A short-term longitudinal study of children’s playground games across the first year of school: Implications for social competence and adjustment to school.” American Educational Research Journal, 39:991–1015. 

This is a multipart series and we'll be releasing a new installment every week. Part two can be read here. Part four can be read here.

Arthur is a writer, researcher, and father with a keen interest in the science behind play. As chief editor for Muddy Smiles, he advocates for (loads) more unstructured play within education and at home.

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