When adults participate in school recess — leading games, monitoring play and ensuring conflicts are resolved quickly — the children become more fully engaged in the activities, according to a new study published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports.

“That suggests that adults are important role models and facilitators for children, especially in cases when children lack the social-emotional skills needed to navigate the recess environment,” said lead author Dr. William Massey, assistant professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University (OSU).

“This doesn’t mean that adults should dictate what children do during recess. It means recess should be viewed as a continuation of the school day in which children can play, interact and learn in a natural environment.”

For the study, OSU researchers examined several factors that can impact children’s engagement in recess activities and the amount of physical activity they experience during recess periods.

Not only did they find that children become more engaged when adults participate, but they also discovered that longer recess periods lead to more movement and greater participation; that boys are typically more engaged in recess than girls; and that recess provides more than one-quarter of students’ school-based physical activity each day.

“This study underscores the importance of a high quality recess experience for children, including the need for adults who are actively engaged with the children on the playground,” said Massey.

“While recess is often perceived as a break for students and teachers alike, recess can also be an opportunity for teachers and students to interact in more informal settings, for teachers to model healthy behavior and appropriate social skills and for students and teachers to develop stronger relationships. Importantly, other research has shown these factors contribute to student success.”

Recess is seen by educators and policymakers as a valuable part of a child’s school day, in part because physical activity plays an important role in helping to curb high child obesity rates.

In fact, the Academy of Pediatrics has deemed recess as essential, and some states are now requiring recess in schools, Massey said. Still, many states have no standard recess requirement and children in urban, low-income schools are less likely to have opportunities for physical activity.

“If kids are active in a way that is not conducive to development, such as bullying or fighting, then just looking at how much time they spend being active misses an important part of the story,” said Massey, whose research interests include the implications of play, sports and other physical activity on youth development, particularly in urban and low-income areas. “Quality and quantity are both important when it comes to recess.”

For the study, 146 children in grades 4-6 from seven schools wore fitness tracking devices to monitor their physical activity during the school day, including recess. The researchers observed recess activity for 8,340 students at nine schools and analyzed the quality of the recess environment and the students’ engagement in activities.

The findings show that the average recess period was nearly 23 minutes and that students averaged just under 42 steps per minute during recess. The researchers also found that boys averaged about 10 more steps per minute than girls in each recess period.

Furthermore, recess was found to contribute to 27 percent of the students’ daily step count average, even though it made up just 5.6 percent of the children’s school day. In addition, the longer the recess time, the more steps per minute a child took and the more moderate to vigorous physical activity they engaged in.

“Interestingly, our data suggests that if you give children more time, they are more active with the time they have,” Massey said. “This finding supports recent efforts to extend recess to 30 minutes a day by states such as Florida, Arizona and New Jersey, in that shorter recess periods may not be provide the opportunity to move in health-enhancing ways.”

Massey conducted the study with co-authors Dr. Megan Stellino from the University of Northern Colorado and Margaret Fraser from Concordia University Wisconsin.

Source: Oregon State University