The Connection Between Play and Learning

  • The research around the importance of play and unstructured time in an elementary student’s day is clear: recess has academic, social-emotional, and physical benefits for students.  

    While many teachers have seen how classes are more settled after recess, it is only more recently that neuroscientists have been able to show how the brain learns best. Not only do students need breaks and movement to help their brain absorb information, neuroscientist Dr. Sergio Pellis explains that: "The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain… without play experience, those neurons aren't changed" (Hamilton, 2014).  These connections allow students to develop greater executive function, problem solving, and social skills, and help students learn to regulate emotions. 

    Recess also provides a less structured time for students to practice social skills.  At recess, students have to negotiate play with classmates and decide what they want to do in this “free” time. “Free, unstructured playtime gives kids a chance to discover their interests and tap into their creativity” (Schwartz, 2013). They build friendships that extend beyond their grade. Older students can mentor younger students in all sorts of play.  In this way, all students have opportunities to be leaders, as well as to help solve problems and conflicts when it arises. “Recess offers a child a necessary, socially structured means for managing stress. By adapting and adjusting to the complex school environment, children augment and extend their cognitive development in the classroom” (Murray & Ramstetter, 2013). Recess builds resilience and creativity. By providing students with twice daily chances to practice their social skills, to learn from each other, and mentor one another, students develop healthy friendships, learn how to navigate tricky situations, and explore.

    There are clear academic benefits to strong social skills.  “In one study, researchers found that the best predictor of academic performance in eighth grade was a child's social skills in third grade” (Hamilton, 2014).  This correlation between play in elementary schools and success later on can be seen in Finland, a country touted for its strong PISA test results, where there are many opportunities for unstructured play in a student’s day (Walker, 2014).

    Recess is also crucial to students’ physical health.  Recess allows students to run with abandon and to climb high. Most importantly, “recess affords young children free activity for the sheer joy of it” (Murray & Ramstetter, 2013).  All of this fun means that students are moving and active, working towards meeting (or exceeding) the American Association of Pediatrics recommended 60 minutes of activity each day.

    Recess is integral in so many ways to students being able to be good learners and good citizens, here at Cornwall School and later in life.  As we look to support students’ academic growth, as well as social-emotional and physical growth, we need to ensure the playground has the structures and loose parts for students to use the time creatively, actively, and collaboratively.