Recess and Unstructured Play


Recess is a break in the school day, during which children can engage in unstructured play. Unstructured play is child-initiated play without formal rules or guidelines.


The purpose of recess and unstructured play is to allow children to control their own activities in a way that leads to improved social, verbal, and other skills. Recess allows the child to take a break from the rigorous structure of the classroom setting, move around, and exercise, leading to improved classroom performance overall.

Recess and unstructured play are also important for the child's fitness and physical well-being. Many activities children choose to participate in during recess or unstructured play are very active. Made-up ball games, tag, and running during made-up games of pretend are good ways for children to get exercise. Childhood obesity has been increasing in the United States, and some experts believe this can be traced in part to the reduction in unstructured play seen in recent decades. The exercise during unstructured play not only aids in the energy expenditure necessary for maintaining a healthy weight, but also benefits heart and bone health.


Recess and unstructured play is an activity available for both genders, all socioeconomic backgrounds, and all ethnicities. The primary target is toddlers and preschoolers, but time for unstructured play should continue into elementary school or even junior high school.


In the United States the time spent in recess and unstructured play has been decreasing since the mid-1980s. Children spend more time engaged in structured activities such as sports, academic classes, music lessons, and other achievement-oriented and adult-directed activities. Children also spend more time in front of the computer, television, and video games than ever before, further reducing the amount of time spent in unstructured play.


Children playing on a swing set. Recess and unstructured play allow children to establish their own activities on the playground, providing an opportunity for imaginative thinking as well as a refreshing break from formal classroom structure.

Children playing on a swing set. Recess and unstructured play allow children to establish their own activities on the playground, providing an opportunity for imaginative thinking as well as a refreshing break from formal classroom structure.

Not all unstructured play is imaginative play, but imaginative play is a core type of unstructured play, believed to have special benefits for the child. During games of let's pretend, children frequently invent complex universes with many characters each with their own back story and personality.

It is often difficult for achievement-oriented parents to allow long periods of unstructured play, as it does not appear to have any direct or measurable benefits. However, unstructured play is extremely important to the child's normal and healthy growth and development. Parents should examine their child's schedule to ensure that he or she is engaging in enough unstructured play each week. Some ways to encourage unstructured play are:

Play therapy is a type of therapy used with young children to help with a variety of problems. During play therapy, the child is given a set of materials to choose from and allowed to play in an unstructured way while the therapist watches and sometimes asks questions. Play therapy should only be done by therapists who have been specially trained in its correct use. Such therapists generally receive a master's degree or doctorate in clinical psychology, with additional training specifically in play therapy. The Association for Play Therapy provides continuing education and maintains a list of approved education centers for the teaching of play therapy.


There is no preparation required for unstructured play. Left to their own devices without a structured activity, most children initiate unstructured play by themselves. Although unstructured play does not require anything more than a child and an imagination, props and toys can add to the fun. Dress-up clothes, play cooking equipment, balls and other sports equipment, puppets, or almost anything else can be used as a prop during unstructured play. Adults can provide the props or suggest a direction for the child (e.g., showing a child how a sock on the hand can be used as a puppet), but the play should be child-driven and child-directed.


There are no risks to unstructured play. Although there may always be some risks to allowing children to run, climb, and play, these risks are small and are far outweighed by the benefits of unstructured play. Playing on playgrounds can result in falls and cuts, scrapes, and bruises. Climbing equipment is a source of many recess and play accidents, the vast majority of which are not serious.


Excessive weight, defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or above.
Play therapy—
A type of therapy in which a child engages in unstructured play that provides the therapist insight into the child's mind and allows the child to work through problems.

Unstructured play has been found to be an integral part of a child's healthy development, both intellectually and socially. One study found that children who were in a preschool that emphasized structured activities were more likely to have committed a felony by the time they were age 23 than their peers who were in a preschool that emphasized unstructured play.

Many stressful things happen in a child's daily life. The challenges of going to a new school and interacting with peers and family can lead to stress and anxiety. Unstructured play, both alone and with other children, has been found to reduce stress. One study looked at children who were stressed by the first day at a new preschool. Children who were allowed to play for 15 minutes were less stressed at the end of that time than children who were read a story by the teacher for 15 minutes. Psychologists hypothesize that unstructured play allows children to control their environment and work through the problems that are stressing them in a way that is age appropriate and makes sense to the child.

During unstructured play, children can imagine new worlds and make up games in any way they choose. This helps foster the creativity that is a cornerstone of academic and intellectual achievement later in life. Children can practice new skills they have learned during unstructured play, such as kicking a ball (a gross motor skill) or making mud pies (a fine motor skill). This type of play helps improve hand-eye coordination, balance, and manual dexterity.

Unstructured play also helps a child's social and intellectual development. During unstructured group play, children work through problems, learn to compromise, learn to work together to reach mutual goals, and learn to make up and follow rules together. This helps develop understanding of other people's points of view and helps the child learn social skills that are the basis for healthy social interactions later in life.




Beresin, Anna R. Recess Battles: Playing, Fighting, and Storytelling. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011.

Bullard, Julie. Creating Environments for Learning: Birth to Age Eight, 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill, 2016.

Smith, Peter K. Children and Play. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.


Haug, Ellen, et al. “The Characteristics of the Outdoor School Environment Associated with Physical Activity.” Health Education Research 25, no. 2 (April 2010): 248–56.

Kalish, Meredith, et al. “Outdoor Play: A Survey of Parent's Perceptions of their Child's Safety.” Journal of Trauma-Injury, Infection, and Critical Care 69, Supplement 4 (October 2010): S218–22.

O'Connor, Chloe, and Karen Stagnitti. “Play, Behavior, Language and Social Skills: The Comparison of a Play and a Non-Play Intervention within a Specialist School Setting.” Research in Developmental Disabilities 32, no. 3 (May/June 2011): 1205–2011.


Francis, Meagan. “How to Get Kids to Play Outdoors.” WebMD. July 1, 2008. (accessed January 22, 2017).

Playground Injuries: Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (March 29, 2012). (accessed January 22, 2017).


Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, 1750 E. Northrop Blvd., Ste. 200, Chandler, AZ, 91403, (800) 446-2322,, .

American Council on Exercise, 4851 Paramount Dr., San Diego, CA, 92123, (858) 576-6500, (888) 825-3636, Fax: (858) 576-6564,, .

International Association for the Child's Right to Play, .

Tish Davidson, AM

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.