It’s no secret we’re expecting more of our elementary students these days when it comes to academics. “Kindergarten is the new first grade,” educators rightly warn—the takeaway being our kids need to be ready to buckle down and perform as soon as they step foot in the M-F full-day classroom. 

But what happens to recess—and moreover, time to play and imagine—in that scenario? 

Often, it gets limited; but a growing number of parents and state legislators are seeking to reverse that trend.  

Connecticut mom Lucy Dathan told the New York Times she moved to New Canaan from California four years ago, and immediately noted the effects of reduced recess time on her kids. She said the kids were restless and found it hard to focus on homework, and she worried they were struggling with peer relationships. 

So when Dathan was elected to the Connecticut legislature in November, she decided to do something about it. 

Dathan is sponsoring a bill that would require districts to provide students with 50 minutes of “undirected play in order to develop children’s social skills, physical development and emotional well-being.”

Last year, Arizona legislators passed their own recess bill that requires elementary schools have two recesses per day, something teachers say is having a positive impact on their students. Lawmakers in Arkansas are considering similar legislation

With two kids in elementary school this year—and a kindergartener joining her siblings there this fall—I’ve seen the power of play and what a difference it can make, too. 

Last year, our first grader was allowed a brief morning recess, 15 minutes after lunch, and occasionally another brief afternoon break. A new principal came into the district this year and doubled the length of that lunch recess—and the benefit I’ve seen has been astounding. Whereas lunchtime last year was a hurried and unpleasant experience, this year the kids have just come in from a full half hour spent burning off energy, playing together, and filling their lungs with fresh air. The result is a more relaxed atmosphere and kids who, by the end of their hour-long break from the classroom, are more ready physically and mentally to learn. 

But beyond the academic benefits of more time on the playground, there’s a simple, too-easily overlooked truth: kids need time to be kids. As the saying goes, “play is the work of children”—and that work is important for our elementary students, too.

Carolyn Moore

Carolyn traded a career in local TV news for a gig as a stay-at-home mom, where the days are just as busy and the pay is only slightly worse. She lives in flyover country with her husband and four young kids, and occasionally writes about raising them at Assignment Mom