Active recess

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Scientifically Supported

Strategies with this rating are most likely to make a difference. These strategies have been tested in many robust studies with consistently positive results.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers
Date last updated

Active, semi-structured, or structured recess is a break from the school day typically before lunch that involves a variety of planned, inclusive, and actively supervised games or activities. Active recess engages all students in these playground activities and games. Active recess efforts are often multi-component interventions that include investments in playground and activity equipment, painted markings on playgrounds, and training for teachers or specialists to lead activities1.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased physical activity

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Reduced bullying

  • Improved social skills

  • Improved school climate

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is strong evidence that active recess increases physical activity for schoolchildren1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Active recess programs can lead to significant increases in moderate to vigorous activity; children can expend 100kcal/30 minutes of recess4.

Recess interventions including active recess are most effective for young children, age 10 and younger1. The longer the duration of each active recess period, the more children’s physical activity levels increase1. A multi-component intervention including active recess in low income elementary schools appears to be associated with improved cardio-respiratory endurance and gross motor skills6. Additional evidence is needed to confirm the effects of active recess interventions for adolescents7.

Programs such as Playworks that include active recess have also been shown to reduce playground conflicts, bullying, and exclusionary behavior5, 8, 9, especially with high quality program implementation10. Teachers from schools participating in Playworks programs report higher levels of student engagement in physical activity, and accelerometer data shows marginally significant effects on physical activity11. An evaluation of Playworks’ on-site coaching program suggests the program can increase physical activity among African American and Hispanic students compared to their peers who do not participate in the program; however, white students do not show a significant change in physical activity12.

In some studies, active recess programs, such as Playworks11, have been shown to have a stronger effect for girls than for boys3, perhaps because boys generally engage in more physical activity during recess than girls13. A study of the multi-component program Peaceful Playgrounds in South Carolina suggests such programs decrease verbal conflicts in boys14. Other studies show no gender differences4.

Several components of active recess programs have been shown to increase physical activity during recess, including staff training, activity zones, painted markings on playgrounds, and playground equipment improvements14, 15, 16, 17. Offering game equipment such as jump ropes, frisbees, assorted balls, hula hoops, racquets, and juggling equipment can also increase children’s physical activity levels18, 19; however, the positive effect of playground equipment can diminish over time and new equipment or rotating equipment may be necessary to maintain student interest1, 16. Combining recess intervention strategies such as structured recess, activity options, variety in playground equipment, and teacher training and involvement may also help maintain the effect on children’s physical activity levels in the long-term1. Experts suggest that recess may need to be longer in duration (> 15 minutes) or coupled with classroom activities which promote physical activity for interventions to have an effect20.

Studies examining structured and unstructured recess interventions have shown positive associations between recess and academic behavior, attitudes, and indicators of cognitive skills21, 22. An evaluation of an active recess initiative in Minnesota suggests common challenges may include inadequate adult supervision and a lack of space and time for active recess23. An assessment of Playworks indicates that high-functioning recess, which includes age appropriate games, spaces, and equipment and intentional adult support, is associated with improved social skills and school climate24. Daily recess is associated with better teacher ratings of classroom behavior25 and principals report that recess has a positive impact on student achievement and learning in the classroom26.

How could this strategy impact health disparities? This strategy is rated no impact on disparities likely.
Implementation Examples

Many public school districts across the country have active or structured recess programs, for example Minneapolis, MN27. Playworks is a program that includes a structured recess component; Playworks has provided workshops and consultations for schools in all 50 states, and 23 cities have a trained Playworks staff member to oversee programming or act as a full-time recess coach, which is available in schools where at least half of the student population qualifies for free and reduced lunch28. Other nonprofit organizations can partner with schools to implement the active recess models, such as Active Play Every Day in Sonoma County, California29.

Many states have laws that require recess periods in elementary schools30. Other states have legislation that supports active recess interventions in elementary and/or middle school, for example Arkansas, Connecticut, and Massachusetts31. Georgia’s Georgia SHAPE is an example of a comprehensive, state-wide initiative to reduce childhood obesity. This initiative encourages elementary schools to use active recess interventions and physically active classrooms to incorporate at least 30 minutes of physical activity daily via its Power Up for 30 program32, 33.

Implementation Resources

Playworks-Find games - Playworks. Find games.

KaBOOM!-Play matters - KaBOOM! Play matters: A study of best practices to inform local policy and process in support of children’s play. Washington, D.C.: KaBOOM.

DASH NY-Chierici 2013 - DASH NY. Time to play: Improving health and academics through recess in New York elementary schools. A mandatory daily active recess policy implementation guide. The New York Academy of Medicine.

NDC-Play 60 - National Dairy Council (NDC), National Football League (NFL). Fuel up to play 60: Playbook.

CDC-CSPAP guide 2013 - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Comprehensive school physical activity programs (CSPAP): A guide for schools. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (U.S. DHHS); 2013.

CDC-CSPAP framework 2019 - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Comprehensive school physical activity programs (CSPAP): A framework for schools. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (U.S. DHHS); 2019.

Peaceful Playgrounds-Recess - Peaceful Playgrounds. Peaceful playgrounds recess program.

AFHG-OST - Alliance for a Healthier Generation (AFHG). Out-of-School Time.

Playcore-Resources -

Playcore. Youth fitness resources and links, including information about Play On! Playground learning activities for youth fitness.

MDH-Active Schools - Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). Active Schools Minnesota.

MN DOE-Recess Moves - Minnesota Department of Education (MN DOE). Recess Moves: A toolkit for quality recess. 2013.


* Journal subscription may be required for access.

1 Erwin 2014 - Erwin HE, Ickes M, Ahn S, Fedewa A. Impact of recess interventions on children's physical activity: A meta-analysis. American Journal of Health Promotion. 2014;28(3):159-167.

2 Larson 2014 - Larson JN, Brusseau TA, Chase B, et al. Youth physical activity and enjoyment during semi-structured versus unstructured school recess. Open Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2014;4(8):631-639.

3 Janssen 2013 - Janssen M, Twisk JWR, Toussaint HM, van Mechelen W, Verhagen EALM. Effectiveness of the PLAYgrounds programme on PA levels during recess in 6-year-old to 12-year-old children. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2013(Jan 4): Epub.

4 Howe 2012 - Howe CA, Freedson PS, Alhassan S, Feldman HA, Osganian SK. A recess intervention to promote moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. Pediatric Obesity. 2012;7(1):82-8.

5 HFRP-Sports4Kids - Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP). Evaluation report: Case study of the first year of Sports4Kids at the Ohrenberger Elementary School in Boston, Massachusetts 2006-2007 school year. Cambridge: Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP); 2007.

6 Brusseau 2018 - Brusseau TA, Hannon JC, Fu Y, et al. Trends in physical activity, health-related fitness, and gross motor skills in children during a two-year comprehensive school physical activity program. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. 2018;21(8):828-832.

7 Parrish 2013 - Parrish AM, Okely AD, Stanley RM, Ridgers ND. The effect of school recess interventions on physical activity: A systematic review. Sports Medicine. 2013;43:287-299.

8 Mathematica-Bleeker 2012 - Bleeker M, James-Burdumy S, Beyler N, et al. Findings from a randomized experiment of Playworks: Selected results from cohort 1. Princeton: Mathematica Policy Research (MPR), John W. Gardner Center (JGC), Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF); 2012.

9 JGC-Mallonee 2011 - Mallonee N, London RA, Stokes-Guinan K, Westrich L, McLaughlin MW. Playworks: Supporting positive school climate in low-income elementary schools. Stanford: John W. Gardner Center (JGC); 2011.

10 JGC-London 2013 - London RA, Castrechini S, Stokes-Guinan K, et al. Playworks implementation in 17 schools from 6 U.S. cities. Stanford: John W. Gardner Center (JGC), Mathematica Policy Research (MPR), Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF); 2013.

11 Beyler 2014 - Beyler N, Bleeker M, James-Burdumy S, Fortson J, Benjamin M. The impact of Playworks on students' physical activity during recess: Findings from a randomized controlled trial. Preventive Medicine. 2014;69:S20-S26.

12 James-Burdumy 2016 - James-Burdumy S, Beyler N, Borradaile K, et al. The impact of Playworks on students’ physical activity by race/ethnicity: Findings from a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Physical Activity and Health. 2016;13(3):275-280.

13 McKenzie 2010 - McKenzie TL, Crespo NC, Baquero B, Elder JP. Leisure-time physical activity in elementary schools: Analysis of contextual conditions. Journal of School Health. 2010;80(10):470-7.

14 Mayfield 2017 - Mayfield CA, Child S, Weaver RG, et al. Effectiveness of a playground intervention for antisocial, prosocial, and physical activity behaviors. Journal of School Health. 2017;87(5):338-345.

15 Escalante 2014 - Escalante Y, Garcia-Hermoso A, Backx K, Saavedra JM. Playground designs to increase physical activity levels during school recess: A systematic review. Health Education & Behavior. 2014;41(2):138-144.

16 Ickes 2013 - Ickes MJ, Erwin H, Beighle A. Systematic review of recess interventions to increase physical activity. Journal of Physical Activity & Health. 2013;10:910-926.

17 Ridgers 2012 - Ridgers ND, Salmon J, Parrish AM, Stanley RM, Okely AD. Physical activity during school recess: A systematic review. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2012;43(3):320-8.

18 Broekhuizen 2014 - Broekhuizen K, Scholten AM, de Vries SI. The value of (pre)school playgrounds for children's physical activity level: A systematic review. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 2014;11:59.

19 Verstraete 2006 - Verstraete SJM, Cardon GM, De Clercq DLR, De Bourdeaudhuij IMM. Increasing children’s physical activity levels during recess periods in elementary schools: The effects of providing game equipment. European Journal of Public Health. 2006;16(4):415-9.

20 Nigg 2018 - Nigg CR, Kutchman E, Amato K, et al. Recess environment and curriculum intervention on children’s physical activity: IPlay. Translational Behavioral Medicine. 2019;9(2):202-216.

21 CDC-School PA 2010 - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The association between school-based physical activity, including physical education, and academic performance. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (U.S. DHHS); 2010.

22 Ramstetter 2010 - Ramstetter CL, Murray R, Garner AS. The crucial role of recess in schools. Journal of School Health. 2010;80(11):517-26.

23 MDH-SHIP 2017 - Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). Enhancing physical activity practices in 14 elementary schools: An evaluation of the Statewide Health Improvement Partnership (SHIP) Active Schools Minnesota initiative. 2017.

24 London 2015 - London R, Westrich L, Stokes-Guinan K, McLaughlin M. Playing fair: The contribution of high-functioning recess to overall school climate in low-income elementary schools. Journal of School Health. 2015;85(1):53-60.

25 Barros 2009 - Barros RM, Silver EJ, Stein REK. School recess and group classroom behavior. Pediatrics. 2009;123(2):431-6.

26 FENTON 2010 - FENTON Communications. The state of play: Gallup survey of principals on school recess. Princeton: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF); 2010.

27 MPS-Active recess - Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). Active recess.

28 Playworks-Facts - Playworks. Playworks 2017-2018 school year media fact sheet.

29 CWB-Active Play - Center for Well-Being (CWB). Active Play Every Day.

30 NASBE-Recess - National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE). State Policy Database: Recess.

31 NCSL-Childhood obesity 2013 - National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Childhood obesity legislation: 2013 update of policy options: Physical activity or physical education in schools and school recess legislation.

32 Georgia SHAPE - Georgia Student Health and Physical Education (SHAPE) Initiative. Power up for 30 success in Georgia.

33 HealthMPowers-Power up - HealthMPowers. Power up for 30.