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The Importance of Play

Posted: 2007-01-24

January 22, 2007 | Volume 5 | Number 1
Research Brief
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

by Dan Laitsch

The Question: How important are play, unstructured time, and recess in the social and academic development of children?

The Context

Much of the recent school reform dialogue has focused on strengthening academic achievement and accountability mechanisms in schools. The No Child Left Behind Act strongly emphasizes numeracy and literacy (including scientific literacy), yet includes no support for recess programs and only minimal reference to physical education (through voluntary grants for programs or equipment). A number of research studies have documented the narrowing of the curriculum to academic subjects at the expense of physical activity, recess, and other activities (see work by the Center for Education Policy, for example). Even as the focus and funds shift elsewhere, policymakers and educators have given little consideration to the research base undergirding the importance of recess and free play, as well as the likely impact of limiting such activities. Although targeted to parents, a recent policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatricians noted that, ?As we strive to create the optimal developmental milieu for children, it remains imperative that play is included along with academic and social enrichment opportunities and that safe environments are made available to all children.?

The Details

Anthony Pellegrini and Catherine Bohn authored the article highlighted in this issue of ResearchBrief (see below for full citation). For their article, the authors reviewed a variety of research, theory, and data related to recess and childhood play, noting in particular the cognitive immaturity theory. This theory deals with children's cognitive and social development and suggests that unstructured breaks during learning and time for free play that supports appropriate social and behavioral development are key elements of childhood learning. These interactions can be particularly important in schools, where peer interaction and support networks are largely established and children learn to cope with the stresses of schooling.

According to the authors, the value of frequent breaks (10 minutes every 40-50 minutes) is supported by extensive anecdotal and experimental evidence. Most East Asian schools systems require such breaks as a matter of policy, while research, the authors say, has found a link between recess and cognitive performance in the form of increased attention, motivation, and engagement. Experimental research previously conducted by Pellegrini found that children?particularly boys?were much more attentive after recess (both indoor and outdoor) than they were before recess periods, and that children were less attentive when there were longer periods before recess.

In addition, the authors highlighted another study previously conducted by Pellegrini that looked at the type of interactions students have during recess and a possible link to academic achievement. Specifically, Pellegrini was interested in examining the extent to which students engaged with one another and with adults while on the playground at recess. Their assumption was that peer relationships were likely to be more interactive and complex, and therefore involve skills associated with higher academic achievement, than teacher-centered interactions. The original study ran over two years and tracked the playground social behavior of kindergartners, then looked at their 1st grade achievement. The researchers found that kindergarten student behavior was a significant predictor of 1st grade achievement, even after controlling for prior achievement: peer interactions were positively related to achievement; adult-directed behavior was negatively associated with achievement.

The Bottom Line

Recess, time for free play, and unstructured breaks from cognitive tasks are important components of well-designed academic programs.

Who's Affected?

Children in elementary and middle school were the focus of the research referenced in this article.


As highlighted by the authors, the emphasis on peer relationships in this research does not negate the importance of positive student-adult and student-teacher relationships. Instead, it emphasizes the importance of students both negotiating multiple complex relationships and accessing time for substantive unstructured breaks between academic activities. This article presents a broad picture of two complex studies and multiple theoretical constructs. Neither of the studies was reported in sufficient depth in this article for a critical review of method and findings.

The Study

Pellegrini, A. D., & Bohn, C. M. (2005, January/February). The role of recess in children's cognitive performance and school adjustment. Educational Researcher. Retrieved December 25, 2007, from http://www.aera.net/publications

Other Resources

The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds

American Academy of Pediatrics

Recess in Elementary School: What Does the Research Say?

ERIC Digest

All comments regarding ReseachBrief should be sent to RBfeedback@ascd.org. To speak directly with an ASCD staff member, contact us.

Dan Laitsch serves as ASCD's consultant editor for ResearchBrief. Laitsch is an assistant professor in the faculty of education at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, and is coeditor of the International Journal for Education Policy and Leadership.

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