What’s Fun About Recess?

Do you remember recess as the most fun part of your school day?  If so, you are probably no longer a child.  In many schools right now, recess is not that much fun. In one study, principals reported that the largest number of visits to their offices resulted from situations that arose during recess.  An alarming number of injuries and school suspensions occur because bullying and fighting are happening rather than good clean fun.  It’s obvious that many kids do not know how to play well with others.  And when they don’t know how to share or resolve conflicts, they may attempt to solve problems by using brute force or threats, making the whole situation messier and worse for everyone.


If our goal is for more people to have more fun more of the time, how can we help our kids with that?  One answer is to be sure that our children are learning basic social play skills.  This happens most effectively when adults and other young people model fun-loving supportive behavior and when the entire social system of the playground is set up to encourage positive interaction.  One group that has made both a science and an art of this is Playworks and a recent study, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has now shown the effectiveness of their approach.




Playworks works primarily with low-income schools, but also does training programs for teachers and staff at higher income schools.  A Playworks coach works as a full-time staff member in the school, setting up active inclusive play activities.  Coaches work with both teachers and students, organizing the use of playground space, establishing consciously cooperative situations, and encouraging new expectations about playing together.


One simple and strikingly effective method of resolving conflict involves using the old “Rock, Paper, Scissors” game to allow kids to take charge of their own decisions about who goes first or whose judgment will be followed in case of a disagreement.  The thinking behind this is that many of the conflicts kids get into are arbitrary and if they can be settled quickly, the kids can get back to playing.  Although it takes a while for everyone to learn these new norms, as kids begin to “own” these methods, their desires to keep the fun going lead them to manage themselves and their play effectively.


When the overall atmosphere of the playground is positive, kids have more fun and feel better about themselves and each other.  They also get more instructional time in the classroom because they settle down to work more quickly and bring fewer emotional upsets with them after recess.


Playworks so perfectly illustrates what I am interested in–methods of helping people to have more fun more of the time!


  • It’s a nuts-and-bolts action plan that replaces chaotic, negative, and violent behaviors with organized, positive, cooperative ones.


  • It helps shape student experience while the students are still young and sets the stage for a better overall experience in school.


  • It empowers kids to handle many of their own issues in productive ways.


  • It makes kids feel good about themselves and their school, but is not just a “self-esteem program.”   It actually teaches social skills, cooperation, respect for others, and self-management.


  • The Playworks coaches engage with the kids in playful ways, but also expect responsible behavior.


I remember so well the differences in “recess supervision styles” of my own teachers (and I’m talking a half-century ago!).   I bet you remember some of these things too, regardless of your age.   Teachers and coaches are just that important!


What were some of your own most positive experiences with recess?

If recess was sometimes hard for you, what could have made it better?

What have you observed about the play experiences of the children you care about?

2 thoughts on “What’s Fun About Recess?

  1. I started elementary school in January 1928. After a few days I came home and told my mother, “It’s true that your school days are the happiest days of your life.” My mother had been a school teacher before she married, so I suppose I had a postive attitude about school from the beginning (no kindergarten or pre-school) back then.
    We had physical education in the class room, the teacher would lead calisthenics. My mother went back to teaching after my father died in 1944, and in middle age she could still put her palms down on the floor without bending her knees. As to recess, I don’t remember much about it except that we did have “Field Day” once a year. There would be foot races and I remember I did chin ups-had to use my whole body to do it due to weak arm strength. I would put one hand for pull-up and the other for chin-up, I could often do more than most of the other boys except for the overage ones. Back then there was no social promotion. I saw one fight during recess during my junior high years. I had one wrestling tussle during recess during junior high. I was ws considered a good wrestler and could out do several boys older than I including one who lived next door. He had a Sunday School classmate who was also good. Frank tagged me and, as I chased him, I run into John Hay who put me down. I was not expecting it, but likely he could have won anyway-he was a year older. He was the Presbyterian preacher’s son and was killed in the Pacific during World War II.
    I think most of the children liked recess and welcomee it back in my time. Misbehavlor in school back then was talking in study hall-I once got a B double minus on behavior for that in the eighth grade. Talking back to a teacher or principal just didn’t happen back then in the schools I attended. Of course, it was a small Tennessee town. Donald W. Bales


    1. You were very lucky to feel that way about your school days – and your attitudes helped you do well in school. Circumstances for recess have changed a lot over the years and children’s expectations about proper behavior have also changed. Organizations like Playworks are trying to make healthy, enjoyable play more available, so that more of today’s children will feel that their school days are the best days of their lives too.


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