In elementary school classrooms around the world, kids strain to contain their energy until recess, like a crumbling dam holding back a river. When the bell rings, they burst onto rooftop playgrounds in Tokyo, hopscotch courts in Los Angeles, and concrete yards in the West Bank to race, fight, joke, bounce, sing, tease, and squeal. Their experience on the playground — joyful or vicious — will impact their development much as any math or science class. Kids aren’t just returning to school this month; they’re returning to the wilds of recess: spontaneous, unpredictable, and an essential respite from the strictures of in-class learning. And out of all that unstructured play comes some of the richest social-emotional learning — provided the recess is well run. That’s harder to do than it sounds.
“There’s a mismatch between what kids and adults expect supervision to look like at recess,” says William Massey, Ph.D., who studies the intersection of play and child development at Oregon State University. “Adults think they should ensure kids don’t get hurt; kids want to be free to jump off high structures and risk physical injury — but they want adults to ensure they don’t get picked on or beat up.” It turns out that, in this case, what kids want is what’s best for them. They need the freedom to take physical risks during activities of their choice, while caring and supportive teachers stand by to coach them through social conflicts.
One of the most compelling studies on recess globally is James Mollison’s photobook from 2015, Playground. Mollison’s images of school kids playing during breaks — whether on a mountainside in Bhutan, on train tracks in Mexico City, in a refugee camp in Jordan, or on a schoolyard playground in Massachusetts — contain familiar vignettes: school children cheering in groups, playing ball, sitting alone, tumbling on the ground, or pointing and teasing.
The photos show us that regardless of the backdrop, given the freedom, kids are boundlessly energetic and creative; for thousands of years, they have invented their games using stones, marbles, and drawings in the dirt as well as chants, songs, riddles, and handshakes. Massey says they don’t need much: “Big beautiful playgrounds are nice, and kids like them, but after about a year, kids are either standing on them hanging out or using them as obstacles in a game of tag.”
The games kids play and songs they sing — from kickball and kick the can to double Dutch and pat-a-cake — give kids the chance to work through tough feelings when they lose, deal with a cheater, and negotiate rules. They also preserve culture — many have been passed from big kids to little kids for hundreds of years.
Around the world, nations are committed to giving children space to play. The U.N.’s Child’s Rights Treaty, which lists play as a right, is one of the most ratified human rights treaties in history. Just three U.N. nations have yet to ratify it: Somalia, South Sudan, and the United States. Here, we offer up an argument for this right through images and tales of play around the world that show play to be both infectious and essential — something we all should advocate for in our children’s schools. With that… Tag! You’re it!
What Recess Looks Like Around the World
In China, recess has traditionally been more of a structured group activity, including regular breaks for eye exercises (the country has one of the highest rates of myopia in the world, and schools have mandated breaks for eye exercises since 1963). A 2015 study published in the BMC Ophthalmology journal found that children who received two additional 20-minute outdoor recess periods a day had less risk for myopia.
In recent years, however, more schools are implementing unstructured recess to complement eye exercises and other group exercise breaks. In Shanghai, kids take a 30-minute nap after lunch and enjoy 10 minutes of recess for every 40 minutes of instruction. Games kids play in their free time might include “forcing the city gates” or “cat and mouse,” wherein a large circle of kids rotate around one kid, “the cat,” and another, “the mouse.” When they stop turning, the cat has to catch the mouse.
In Costa Rica, students get up to 55 minutes of recess per day, according to UNESCO data. In addition, there are short unstructured breaks after every two classes and a more extended unstructured break after lunch. Costa Rican researcher Jenny Artavia Granados of the Universidad de Costa Rica visited schools for her study Vamos al Recreo and learned a vast array of classic schoolyard games: several versions of marbles, hide and go seek, jump rope, and less well-known games like “manos calientes” (hot hands) where kids take turns slapping each other's hands until one gives up.
In England, most primary school children get a 15-minute break in the morning and an hour at lunchtime. Break times have dwindled since the 1990s, and teachers can withhold recess as punishment. A 2019 study by Ed Baines and Peter Blatchford at the University College London found that at about half of England’s primary schools, kids can direct their play, and staff supervises from a distance.
Kids might play capture the flag, kick the can, or “British bulldog,” wherein kids have to run from one point to another without being caught by the bulldog. Some districts banned the game because of frequent injuries, but no-contact versions have evolved.
In Finland, children play and explore independently, climbing trees and building with saws and hammers. Elementary school kids get a 15-minute recess each hour, coupled with a daily ethics class, which supports positive behaviors kids can then practice on the playground. Debbie Rhea, a professor at Texas Christian University, created the LiiNK Project — which promotes the connection between well-run recess periods and classroom achievement in the United States — after visiting Finland on sabbatical in 2012. Rhea’s model, inspired by what she observed in Finland, includes four 15-minute recesses — two in the morning and two in the afternoon. Recess is also bolstered by daily character development lessons focused on pro-social skills like empathy.
“Physiologically, you want to reboot every 45 to 60 minutes,” says Rhea. “That brings better attentional focus than having a 30-minute recess in the morning and a 30-minute recess in the afternoon.” Her project is showing promising results. American schools that have implemented it report 70% less stress and anxiety, 40% less off-task behavior, and higher math and reading scores than control schools.
The West Bank
In India’s city centers, real estate is often too costly to allot space for recess. In a 2016 study, Anne Beresin at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, surveyed recess practices in India and elsewhere. “The kids in the metros are often cooped up in classes,” professor Arvin Gupta reported, “and perhaps the only break they get is for lunch.” Rural kids are more likely to get recess and play breaks simply because they get more space. Most school children in India get one break a day, but in some states, like Karnataka and Sikkim, students get two breaks. A National Council of Education and Training study found that Indian students with more recess breaks are more willing to study.
Mollison visited a playground in Gujuarat with mandatory yoga for elementary school kids and another with daily free play time after lunch. Games they might play include “nondi,” hopscotch; or chuupam chupai, similar to hide-and-seek; or aankh micholi, a game where a blindfolded “denner” has to catch the other kids — a game captured in Mollison’s photo, above.
Ugandan students have an eight-hour school day, with a half-hour of play in the morning, an hour for lunch and more recreation, and 1.5 hours of activity time (sports, music, art, free-choice playtime) in the afternoon, according to a report from the U.S. Play Coalition at Clemson University. The school day ends later than it does in most countries, but having a long, unstructured activity period at the end of the day helps ensure kids leave school with a smile. They might use their free time to dance, play games like jonah, netball, or duulu — a marble game that’s played like pool, but with fingers — or make jump ropes from dried palm fronds. Ugandan kids are playing with extra verve this year. They just returned to school in January after 83 weeks off, the longest COVID school closure in the world.
United States of America
Everyone knows red light, green light and tag, but kids in American schools have preserved other diverse and regional games for generations. In Brooklyn, there’s handball, and African American girls across the country have an old and vast catalog of sing-alongs, hand-slapping games, and double Dutch routines.
While some of us may take recess for granted in the United States, there are no national guidelines requiring breaks during the school day. Only 10 states have signed laws that require schools to provide recess to elementary school children. Georgia is the latest state to guarantee recess, with a bill signed into law this summer that not only demands recess but prohibits teachers from withholding recess as punishment. “It’s still about time and minutes, not about quality,” says Massey of the new state standards, “but it’s a step forward.” In most states, there are no set requirements, and recess is in constant peril of being cut from the schoolday wholesale — or cut as punishment. As a result, some schools do recess well, and others don’t do it at all. On average, U.S. kids get about 30 minutes of recess a day, but kids in large, urban, Southeastern schools serving low-income and students of color tend to get the least.