The Physical Benefits of Recess

Now for one of my favorite topics! Recess.

Recess is a time of day … ideally a couple times each day … where children receive a much needed break from school work. It is a chance for them to challenge their bodies and explore what they are capable of in the realm of gross motor activities (running, jumping, ball play, climbing, balancing, etc.). The gross motor play at recess also stimulates & assists with the development of certain sensory systems (vestibular, tactile, proprioception, visual, etc.).

Here’s a quick overview of those sensory systems! 

  • Vestibular: The vestibular sensory system sends information to the brain about the position of the head and the body’s movement through space. This sense coordinates movements of the eyes, head, and body to help with balance and spatial orientation for the purpose of coordinating controlled, well-balanced movement. The receptors of the vestibular system are located in the inner ear and are stimulated by movement of the head, informing us about which direction we are moving and how fast we are moving. 
  • Tactile: The tactile sensory system has receptors located in the skin & joints that respond to the sensations of pressure, vibration, temperature, pain, and movement/position. Touch provides important feedback for precise, skilled movement which contributes to a child’s body awareness & body scheme. 
  • Proprioception: The proprioceptive sensory system provides unconscious awareness of the body’s position in space. It provides information about where each part of the body is and how it is moving, especially in relation to other people or objects. This sensory system also informs the body about how much force to use when performing a task. 
  • Visual: The visual system provides information about what is around us in our environment, allowing us to move safely & effectively. 

What are common pieces of equipment you can find on a school playground? How do they impact a child’s gross motor skills & sensory systems? Let’s look at the specific physical benefits of recess and gross motor play.

  • Slides – Slides can come in various shapes & sizes. There are spiral slides, tube slides, wavy slides, and your average, everyday slides. As children slide down, they are receiving important vestibular input which helps develop & improve body awareness. Furthermore, as a child slides down and reaches the bottom they must slow & stop themselves when their feet contact the ground. This requires more effort & consists of harder muscle contractions which is great for improving lower extremity strength & proprioception. Slides can also be great for climbing up which improves bilateral coordination & overall strength. 
  • Swings – Swings can also come in various shapes & sizes. There are web swings, sling/belt swings, bucket or half-bucket swings, hammock swings, tire swings, adaptive swings, and wheelchair swings! Swings provide vestibular input for children which helps develop & improve body awareness. Depending on the type of swing, a child can also use their legs to propel themselves improving lower extremity strength, timing, and coordination. 
  • Climbers – Climbing equipment is great for upper extremity, core, and lower extremity strengthening. It can help improve bilateral coordination, balance, and motor planning/sequencing (the ability to plan out how you will accomplish a gross motor task). Climbing is also known as a heavy work activity. Heavy work activities are activities that are challenging and increase the strain on the body’s muscles & joints. This increased strain sends more feedback to the brain about the body’s position and activities, improving overall body awareness and proprioception. Common climbing equipment you may see on a playground are rock walls, ladders, vine & pod climbers, monkey bars, etc. 
  • Balance & Other Dynamic Equipment – There are many different pieces of playground equipment that are designed to challenge children’s balance & ability to maintain postural control (ability to maintain a certain position or posture without loss of balance). Common balance or dynamic equipment include: linear balance beams, curvy balance beams, and dynamic or suspended balance beams (that move), stepping stones, dynamic bridges, etc. These are great for working on balance, postural control, righting & balance reactions, vision, depth perception, and body awareness. 

Although this list is not exhaustive… if it were we’d be here all day… it’s meant to give you some information about the physical & sensory benefits of recess as well as the purpose of all that cool equipment you see on playgrounds! Next week we will discuss how school-based physical therapists approach facilitating recess & accessibility to the playground for children with physical & mental disabilities. 


Catherine C. Skelton, PT, DPT

Pediatric Physical Therapist 

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