Shrinking Recess Part 5: Mental Health & Wellbeing
posted by: Melissa | October 16, 2019, 08:28 PM   

Today we present the fifth installment in our blog series, Shrinking Recess. In today’s installment, we list the ways that recess can affect the mental health 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 physical health.


The conversation around mental health is one that has come into sharp focus in recent years, and for good reason. There’s been a significant increase in mental health issues, particularly among children and teens. One issue that may be exacerbating these difficulties is a lack of recess and free play. This is a period of time where kids develop important problem solving skills and engage in self discovery, and without it, their development is impeded.

This decline in mental health is illustrated in two generational studies assessing over 75,000 American high school and college students between 1938 and 2007. It was discovered that between five and eight times more students now report symptoms that would qualify them for a diagnosis of anxiety or major depression. It is theorized that a cultural shift toward extrinsic goals (think tests, hobbies and skills over unstructured personal time) may be responsible for this discrepancy. (Source)

Key study/paper: Twenge, J. et al. (2010). “Birth cohort increases in psychopathology among young Americans, 1938–2007: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of the MMPI” Clinical Psychology Review 30:145-154. 


Time in nature can do wonders for our kids, so it’s a good thing most of them love spending time outside. It’s a good way for people of all ages to de-stress, and in an increasingly urban world, spending time in green spaces is refreshing. When kids spend time outside during recess, especially in green spaces, it turns out they’re less likely to stay stressed out.

The effect green spaces have on kids was addressed in a unique 2014 study touching on the benefits of green schoolyards. When kids are afforded time in natural spaces, they report feeling less stressed out, more resilient and more at peace. These are the kinds of positive feelings we want our kids to associate with their time at school, and they’re part of why recess is so crucial. (Source)

Key study/paper: Louise Chawla, Emily Stanley, (2014). “Green schoolyards as havens from stress and resources for resilience in childhood and adolescence”. Health and Place, 28:1-13. 


Being a kid can be tough, and more than a little bit confusing. We all face questions we don’t have answers to, but facing down existential questions about purpose and fate can feel extra stressful and scary for kids. It’s important that they understand that they’re in control of their path, and learning to solve problems, focus on their interests and develop their sense of self through unstructured play helps defeat those challenging feelings.

The results of two meta-analyses performed on young Americans revealed that their belief in outside forces controlling their lives rather than their own actions is increasing. The effects of this are largely negative, as it misplaces and externalizes responsibility for an individual’s actions and is shown to be detrimental scholastically and cause issues with stress management, depression, self control and helpless feelings. (Source)

Key study/paper: Twenge, J. et al. (2004). “It’s beyond my control: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of increasing externality in locus of control, 1960-2002.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 8:308-319. 


While periods of sadness and grief are normal, especially after a sad or disappointing event, pervasive depression shouldn’t be ignored. Kids can suffer from depression that’s as real and destructive as its adult counterpart, and medicating their symptoms can be difficult. Staying physically active is one scientifically proven depression buster that recess offers our kiddos.

In Trondheim, Norway, a group of nearly 800 six year old children had their physical activity monitored via an accelerometer. Follow up reviews took place when children reached eight and ten years of age, and any major depression symptoms were measured via semi-structured clinical interviews of children and their parents. The reviews demonstrated that a higher rate of moderate to vigorous physical activity can treat and might prevent childhood depression. (Source)

Key study/paper: Tonje Zahl, Silje Steinsbekk, Lars Wichstrøm. (2017). “Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior, and Symptoms of Major Depression in Middle Childhood”. Pediatrics, 139(2). 

This is a multipart series and we'll be releasing a new installment every week. You can read part four here and you can find the conclusion 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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