Bringing Recess Back: Why Kids Today Need More Outdoor Playtime

Mother Dirt

When you think of your dearest childhood memories, what comes to mind? Most of us flash back to an innocent time outdoors: sports practices, backyard swing sets, and sunny days spent drawing lines in dirt or pulling up grass.

Perhaps most fondly we recall recess, the best part of any school day.

The physical health benefits of outdoor play are innumerable. But there’s evidence that getting your kid outside has far deeper (and longer lasting) effects than fitness. Here, we explore the ways recess can benefit your mind, body, and spirit—whether you’re a kid or not.

Wait, where is recess going?

Kids today just don’t play outside as much anymore. They go outdoors for about an hour each weekday, less than 50 percent of the time their parents logged in the 1960s-70s, about 40 to 50 years ago. With an intensified dependence on iPhones, laptops, and myriad other tech, the lack of interest in swingsets and treehouses is, at this point, a very apparent generational shift.

So the question becomes: What will our education system do about it?

Not what you’d expect. More and more schools are doing away with “recess” as a scheduled concept. In fact, less than 30 percent of American elementary schoolers get 15+ minutes of recess a day. This seems counterintuitive given kids’ need for exercise, but many educators see time outdoors as a hindrance to test prep or a potential safety liability—even as recent reports state the exact opposite.

We think it’s time to re-institute...

A more “natural” school curriculum

Unstructured, self-directed time outside isn’t just a way to stay fit. It’s an exercise of the mind, on par with math or English class. Don’t buy it? Below, we list a few major benefits of recess:

  • A sense of independence, self-control, and self-restraint
  • Creative thinking and problem-solving
  • Breaks from boredom and fatigue
  • Connection with peers
  • Reduced anxiety, depression, and hyperactivity disorders

As you can see, learning isn’t just about crunching numbers or memorizing lines. It’s about exercising a mental capacity for curiosity, compassion, and collaboration with others. In school, these are skills only recess can teach. (If you think about it this way, recess might be just as important for job preparation as your actual classes!)

Getting a little dirty

The “pluses” above don’t even touch upon how the body benefits from recess. More time spent outdoors means a boosted immune system, as well as greater intake of vitamin D, according to the federal Head Start program.

Recent research also suggests that exposure to natural elements—dirt, mud, the water from a stream—helps boost your skin microbiome by showing it new, beneficial bacteria. Even interacting with other people, who each have their own unique bacterial makeup, can keep your microbiome happy. This in turn may ward off infections, irritations, and skin conditions like dry skin and oily skin or worse. 

It’s no wonder that, in a culture where kids are kept indoors all day, there’s such a sudden rise in asthma and nature-related allergies. Maybe recess is the remedy we need. (Read all about the skin microbiome here.)

Back to basics: Feeling like a kid again

When you’re a child, you feel a oneness with Mother Nature untainted by the indoor constraints of modern life. It’s a valuable, curious time to connect with the earth before we’re old enough to even be conscious of what that means.

But as we enter adulthood, that curiosity gets behind us. With responsibilities, nine-to-fives, and the total saturation of technology, it’s hard to carve out headspace for outdoor learning.

It’s time to adopt the idea of “recess” back into our everyday lives. If we all had a bit more outdoor playtime, we would give our minds and bodies the best possible chance to thrive.

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