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Why School Recess is Important for Autistic Children

school recess

When my 9-year-old ASD child returns home from school in the afternoon, I always ask the same question, “How was your day?” The only thing of interest that he ever talks about is what happened during recess. He discusses who he played with, what they did, and how he wished recess was longer. I suspect that this is true of most children—the highlight of the day being “recess.” For children with autism, participation in recess may be a component necessary for their success.

Recess and Learning

Children of all ages learn critical life skills during “play time.” They learn to formulate ideas, use their imaginations, and work together with others. For autistic children, these are important learning and interaction times. Children learn during recess, but the benefit recess has on learning does not stop there. Research shows that children who have had time to relax, and play during the day are better able to focus and learn in the classroom. Autistic children are no exception, in fact, they may need more time than their neuro-typical peers in order to process information.

Recess Affects Behavior

According to a 2009 study in the journal of Pediatrics, kids behave better in the classroom when they have the chance to burn energy on the playground during the day. In children with autism spectrum disorders, this may be amplified. Many autistic children need frequent breaks, and time to decompress in order to relax and focus.

Recess and Socialization

Socialization is a large area of concern when we discuss children with autism. These children tend to struggle socially, have difficulty reading social cues, taking turns, and integrating into activities with their peers. What these children can learn on the playground during recess cannot be taught in the classroom sitting down.

When Recess is Difficult

For some children with autism recess can be a difficult time. They difficult with social situations can pose problems when attempting to “play” with their peers. When recess is a source of stress there are many things that can help. Organized games, involving watchful and mindful teachers, can give the autistic child structure while still offering the positive aspects of recess. They still have physical activity, play-time, and learn to take turns but with often less stress than a completely unstructured period of time. Social stories can be used to teach children what to expect during recess periods, and give them a point of reference for unfamiliar situations.

Proprioceptive Stimulation

For the child who craves proprioceptive stimulation (sensory input), recess is absolutely necessarily. These children may crave the input that running, sliding, swinging, or bouncing provides and is necessary for them to make it through a school day successfully.

Taking Recess Away as Punishment

Despite the many benefits to children’s learning that research shows, a startling trend is appearing across our nation’s schools. Recess is being taken away as punishment for infractions ranging from disturbing behaviors to missed or forgotten school and homework. The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons, and this author agrees.

All children benefit from recess, unstructured “play-time,” during their school day. Just like adults need breaks during the workday, children need breaks too. These breaks, however, for autistic children are an important and necessary part of their learning. Recess affords them social interactions, decompression (down-time), proprioceptive stimuli, a time for their brains to process information, and most importantly a time to enjoy being a kid.


Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.

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