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Twenty minutes is the amount of time it takes to eat breakfast or do a short exercise routine. It’s also the amount of time elementary school children in Florida, Rhode Island, Missouri, and New Jersey have for recess, at a minimum, as mandated by recent changes to state laws.

The promise of 20 minutes a day for children to play freely may seem like a modest legislative accomplishment, but in schools and districts where recess had been nonexistent the recent mandates have come as a breath of fresh air for many parents. As Angela Browning, founder of Recess for All Florida Students, notes in a recent article in Time magazine, “I cannot even begin to explain to you how much adding recess back into their day— how much of an effect that had on my kids,” she said. “When we have these young children and we can’t find time to give them a 20-minute break a day, we’ve lost our way.”

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Browning is a parent advocate who, like others in many states, has watched in dismay as increased emphasis on standardized testing following the passage of No Child Left Behind has prompted school districts to cut or eliminate recess time—along with art, music, and physical education—in favor of more classroom instruction.

But the needle in the running debate over recess has shifted in recent years.  At least five states now have a codified recess law, and seven more —Iowa, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, Connecticut, and Virginia—require at least 20-30 minutes of physical activity, though it is up to schools to decide how they wish to allocate that time.

Melinda Bossenmeyer, founder of the Missouri-based company Peaceful Playgrounds, says these changes have been driven, in large part, by a growing body of research showing the benefits of open unstructured play to children’s social and cognitive development. This includes a 2015 Stanford study of six low-income elementary schools that found recess can help students feel more engaged, safer and positive about the school day; a 2010 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found positive associations between recess and academic performance; and an emerging body of thought, outlined in the New York Times, which suggests open-ended, imaginative play in childhood primes the mind for creative thought.

“The research has shown that we need to do just the opposite in terms of children’s brain development, not cut back on recess, but keep kids active and moving around. Children’s brains develop based on activities and connections, and their ability to focus is enhanced. Having breaks and being active is sort of like Miracle Grow for the brain,” Bossenmeyer says.

U.S. Playground Map Stencil by Peaceful Playgrounds | photo via https://peacefulplaygrounds.com/

As research into the benefits of recess and free play has gained momentum, parents, teachers, professional organizations, and advocacy groups have used it as a rallying cry to lobby for the protection of dedicated recess time. Strong public support for recess in Arizona, for instance, encouraged state legislators to enact a law requiring two daily recesses for the state’s elementary school students. Since the law’s passage, teachers have seen fewer disciplinary actions, enhanced test scores and improvement in children’s overall health.

Some of the benefits of recess are along the lines of what one might expect. A 2009 study found that 8- and 9-year-old children who had at least one daily recess period of more than 15 minutes had better classroom behavior. The students were less fidgety and better able to focus after recess. Once skeptical of the benefits of recess, teacher Timothy Walker witnessed this phenomenon himself in his fifth grade classroom in Helsinki, when he tried to eliminate regularly scheduled 15 minute breaks. As he recounts in a letter to the Atlantic, the decision led to the mass revolt of “feet-dragging, zombie-like” children.

Other findings are less intuitive. Sergio Pellis, a neuroscientist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, has found in animal experiments that free play improves neural development in the prefrontal cortex—an area of the brain involved in decision making— and some researchers believe such effects may extend to children. What’s better understood is that the social aspect of recess—giving children time to negotiate relationships and resolve conflicts on their own—is one of its main benefits. Such time is especially important in an era in which many children’s activities, from play dates to music lessons, are highly regulated by adults.

Recess has strong support among parents and school principals. Three out of four parents believe recess should be required by schools, according to a survey by the National Parent Teacher Association, and eight of ten principals polled in 2009 say recess has a positive impact on academic learning. Still, resistance to recess persists in many states and local districts. Massachusetts recently saw a bill that would have instituted mandatory recess fail, and it was not long ago that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a recess bill that would have required 20 minutes of daily recess for students across the state.

What’s especially problematic is the disparity in how recess is apportioned: students who are African American, poor, or struggling academically, are among those least likely to have recess, according to research in a 2003 issue of Teachers College Record.

Chicago Public School students playing capture the flag | photo via Chicago SCORES

Thankfully, several groups are actively working to level the playing field. A Chicago company, America SCORES, offers staff training, recess facilitation, and a nearly 100-page K-8 curricular guide focused on supporting unstructured play and scripted games, such as four square, jump rope, relay races, and capture the flag. “Make recess anything but a hassle,” reads a message on the organization’s website. Peaceful Playgrounds, active at 8,000 schools in the United States and internationally, trains educators to supervise children’s games and provides DIY-instructional guides for painting blacktops to promote positive play.

“We don’t believe in telling children what to do at recess. They should do what they want to, or even do nothing. But if you enhance the environment and give children choices in games to play, we’ve found they will be more active, with fewer discipline problems, and the school environment will be more peaceful. Our research shows a decrease in bullying and fewer interruptions as children go back to class,” Bossenmeyer says.

Another piece of all this, of course, is the role of playgrounds in supporting a safe and engaging recess environment. Under existential pressure to meet the benchmarks of high-stakes standardized tests, under-resourced school districts may have a hard time finding a place in their budgets for playground equipment. But playgrounds are worth fighting for, even if their creation and ongoing maintenance means making difficult choices. Playgrounds are often where children make friends, relieve stress, exercise, gain confidence, and give their imaginations space to grow. Swings, spinners, slides, and musical instruments can provide a blueprint for play, not dictating what children will do, but giving them options to activate their minds and bodies—hopefully, for at least 20 minutes per day.