Prevalence of Recess and Supportive Practices at U.S. Public Elementary Schools
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The PAPREN School Wellness Work Group recently published a paper on recess practices nationwide. They share their results here. Why is this topic imp ...

The PAPREN School Wellness Work Group recently published a paper on recess practices nationwide. They share their results here.

Why is this topic important?

Physical activity is associated with physical and mental health outcomes among children. Yet most kids do not meet the recommended physical activity guidelines of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day.  Recess, a regularly scheduled period during the school day that provides an opportunity for unstructured play, can be an important contributor to meeting physical activity goals.

In the United States, national estimates from a 2014 study found that elementary school students spend an average of 26.9 minutes in recess per day. Other studies have identified disparities by school characteristics. For example, schools that were located in urban areas, had a lower student socioeconomic makeup, and a high proportion of minority students had less scheduled recess time than their counterparts.

Practices that affect recess access and quality are also important. Trained recess supervisors can help prevent negative social behaviors like bullying, help keep students active during recess time, and promote positive peer interactions. The practice of withholding recess for behavioral or academic performance reduces access to recess and may be counterproductive.

There is substantial evidence regarding the importance of recess time and quality. However, the most recent nationally representative estimates of daily recess time date back to 2014, and data on the withholding of recess were last collected in 2016.  There is a need for updated prevalence data and an assessment of disparities in recess practices. Our study provides nationally representative prevalence estimates of elementary school recess practices in the United States, drawing data from the 2019-2020 school year.

How did you go about the study?

We sent surveys to a sample of 1010 public elementary schools across the U.S. in the 2019-2020 school year. We received a total of 559 responses. We calculated prevalence estimates for recess time and practices including: (1) the amount of time for recess, (2) the presence of trained recess supervisors, (3) policies allowing students to voluntarily stay inside during recess, (4) the prevalence of withholding recess as a consequence for poor behavior, and (5) the prevalence of withholding recess to complete schoolwork. We compared results by region (Northeast, Midwest, South, West), urbanicity, and size of school; racial and ethnic composition; and socioeconomic status (percent eligible for free/reduced-priced meals) of the student body.

What were the main findings?

Our study found that providing the recommended amount of at least 20 minutes of daily recess was the most prevalent practice (87.9%). Additionally, over half of schools (59.4%) provided 30 minutes or more. Around a quarter of schools (26.6%) had trained recess supervisors. Most schools did not allow students to voluntarily stay inside during recess (71.6%). Around half prohibited withholding recess for poor behavior (45.6%) or to complete schoolwork (49.5%).

In comparing results by school characteristics, several practices varied by region. Having at least 30 minutes of daily recess was more common in the West. There was wide regional variation in practices around withholding recess. Withholding recess for poor behavior or to complete schoolwork was more prevalent among schools with lower student socioeconomic makeup.

What are some ways school personnel and other practitioners can use the findings?

Most schools are meeting the minimum daily minutes of recommended recess. We see room for improvement in implementation of practices that improve social environments of recess and prevent withholding of recess. Consistent nationwide monitoring of recess practices to track progress and identify areas for improvement can provide valuable insights for policymaking and bolster initiatives to increase equitable access to recess. Previous research has demonstrated that establishing regulations related to physical activity opportunities in schools, such as state-level policies or school wellness policies, can bring about improvements in school practices. Schools should consider adopting policies and practices that prioritize the improvement of recess quality, in addition to its duration.

Citation: Tsai, MM, Olarte, DA, Hager, ER, Cohen, JFW, Turner, L. Prevalence of recess and supportive practices at a nationwide sample of public elementary schools in the United States. J Sch Health. 2023; DOI: 10.1111/josh.13368

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