Saturday, April 20, 2024

Is more recess the key to a better education?

(WYDaily photo/Courtesy York County)

On July 1, a new law allowing extended recess for Virginia students went into effect, and now local school systems are working to figure out how to incorporate more play into the school day.

The legislation allows recess to be included as part of the requirements for instructional hours, according to Virginia’s Legislative Information System. Before, only a minimum of 20 minutes of recess was required in an entire school day.

There are tangible benefits to adding unstructured play time to the school day, said Kyung-Hee Kim, a professor educational psychology at William & Mary.

“Research shows that a period of downtime after a period of concentrated instruction increases children’s ability to refocus. Students must be allowed the time to think, digest, simmer, [and] ripen their thoughts,” she said. “The unpredictability and uncurated nature of unstructured recess allows children to transform the world around them through imagination, combine ideas into novel synthesis, and make unusual associations,” Kim said.

York County’s plans for play

In York County, the question now is not whether extended recess is a good thing, but rather how to incorporate unstructured play time into the already rigidly structured day. It’s best for students to have 10- to 20-minute breaks every hour —  preferably more before lunchtime  — instead of large chunks of downtime at once.

“Recess time should be considered a child’s personal time,” Kim said. “During unstructured play, children are free to explore and make sense of the world around them. Students master new knowledge and skills when they can explore concepts in depth and informally, as can happen at recess.”

Katherine Goff, public relations & communications officer for York County School Systems, said the School Board has developed a committee composed of teachers, parents and administrators to address the issue.

“What we want is to make sure the committee covers various demographics, meaning not only grade-level teachers but resource teachers as well,” she said. “Because people think of it as just taking time from regular instruction but it can also pull from classes like art, music and P.E.”

The committee is scheduled to meet in mid-August, Goff said, although a definitive date has not been set. 

The committee likely will send a survey to parents and teachers to gather opinions on how to best incorporate more play into the school day and use that data to develop its proposal, Goff said. 

“When the legislation began moving forward in the general assembly, the division recognized the importance of physical activity and free time in the education of our students, and that’s something that we want to offer them in the best way we can,” Goff said.

Williamsburg-James City County Schools is not planning to change to recess schedules, said Eileen Cox, senior director for communications and engagement. After a review from the district’s wellness committee, Cox said, the division decided that the current language regarding recess in the wellness policy would remain in place:

  • Elementary students will have at least 20 minutes a day of supervised recess, preferably outdoors.
  • During recess, all students will be encouraged by staff to be moderately to vigorously active.
  •  Every effort will be made to offer recess before lunch.
  • When weather is inclement, an indoor 20-minute recess will be offered that will involve all students in moderate to vigorous activity.
  • Elementary teachers will be provided with training, equipment and materials so that they can promote physical activity during indoor and outdoor recess and throughout the day.

Why more play is better

Kim has done research to understand how children’s imagination and creativity are affected by available free time. She said that in recent years, schools have become too test-centric, making teachers cover large amounts of material and overfeeding facts and information to students.

“Parents have become too focused on academics, leading children’s time to be over-scheduled and involved in academic-focused programs at the expense of active, unstructured play,” Kim said.

Her research shows that allowing for free time creates more opportunities for imagination and creativity, which ultimately helps students in not only when they’re young but also as they get older.

Free time is important at any age, Kim said, but especially when students are young.  If students develop creative skills early in life, they are able to apply those tools to critical thinking into adolescence and adulthood.

“Many people mistake creativity as being purely artistic, but it can exist in all fields beyond the arts,” Kim said. “Creativity involves making something unique and useful in one’s area of interest by asking new questions and finding new answers.”

Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at

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