Amber Han Men
December 8, 2003

The Importance of Freeplay: A look at the Evidence by Amber E. Han Men


In recent years, school districts across the country have been cutting out recess and freeplay opportunities for children during the school day. The reasons for the cutbacks in free time are varied; due to increased academic standards, many districts feel that lesson time needs to be increased at the expense of recess. But are students actually learning more without the opportunity to re-charge their brains with physical activity? Many defendants of the elimination of recess assert that physical activity is addressed in P.E. classes, and that freeplay during recess is unnecessary.

Evidence-Based Practice Question:

Does freeplay on outdoors playground equipment enhance the learning ability of elementary age students in general and or special education throughout the rest of the day?

Criteria for Evidence Selection:

In examining this topic, I selected evidence that addressed at least one of the following categories: assessment of academic or social performance with and without freeplay opportunities, activity level of students during recess, and use of playground equipment. Sources were books as well as articles from both refereed and non-refereed publications from the years 1980 on.

Summary of Evidence:

The evidence regarding the link between freeplay on outdoor playground equipment and the learning ability of elementary age students suggests that the attention levels of both regular and special education students are significantly increased. Furthermore, unstructured playtime provides socially accepted students with opportunities for social development while it may lead to aggressive behavior among children that are socially rejected. Through use of operant conditioning, freeplay on playground equipment can improve behavior especially in the 5-12 age group. The inattention of students was found to be greater before recess periods. Delay of recess by a half an hour resulted in an increase of social interaction on the playground particularly among boys. Students identified with having Attention Deficit Disorder benefited from more frequent recess periods.

Implications for Consumers:

Parents of elementary students should be encouraged to advocate for recess. Evidence shows that when children are provided with times to engage in free, unstructured play throughout the school day, social development occurs and attention after recess is improved.

Implications for Practitioners:

Teachers and childcare professionals can conclude that unstructured playtime is necessary to maintain optimal attention levels as well as encourage social development among elementary age students. Teachers and therapists should push for freeplay during recess periods to promote the best environment for their studentís learning.

Implications for Researchers:

More randomized control studies should be conducted on the correlation between free play and classroom performance. Clinicians could benefit from level I research conducted on the social and academic development of students in mainstream and special education.

Recommendations for Best Practice:

Occupational therapists need to be advocates for the studentís right to freeplay. Within the school system, OTís are the best resources to explain the negative effects of activity deprivation. Therapists working in the school system can benefit the overall education of all students by being vocal proponents of the value of freeplay and unstructured recess.

Summary of Evidence


Study Design

Level of Evidence

Sample Size

Intervention/ Outcome

Conclusion and implications

Jarrett, O.S. (2002).

Synthesis of both descriptive and experimental studies


Collected from 24 resources

Available research implies that recess plays a crucial role in learning, social competency, and health of elementary age students.

Children become progressively inattentive when recess is denied. Levels of physical activity vary depending when children need it most. Unstructured playtime provides necessary social development; this occurs when rules for play are created and children have the choice to participate in the game or not.

Villarante, F.T., (1984).

Experimental study


35 Children with behavior-al problems

Rewarded good behavior with 15 minutes of time using the Moonwalk, an air inflated jumper.

Using the Moonwalk as an incentive to improve behavior works especially well in the 5 to 12 age group. The enclosed bubble of the Moonwalk provides a safe and fun environment that can enhance emotional adjustment when using operant conditioning.

Pellegrini, A. D. (1988).

Quasi-experimental study


35 kinder-gartners, 30 second graders, 29 fourth graders

Students were observed during recess and the behaviors of rough and tumble play were recorded and categorized.

Rough and Tumble play positively correlated with social problem solving. The rough and tumble play of students that were identified as socially accepted did not develop into aggressive behavior as frequently as that of socially rejected children.

Pellegrini, A. D., et al. (1995).

Experimental study


62 boys and girls in grades K, 2 and 4

Recess times were varied by 30 minutes to compare in- attention levels with long and short periods of deprivation.

Boys were especially social on the playground following a long deprivation period. Recess behaviors did not correlate to postrecess behavior though inattention rates were higher before recess than after. All students with ADD returned from recess with increased attention.