Skip to navigationSkip to content

America is wrong to think reducing kids’ playtime will improve academic performance

Primary school students practice morning exercises during class break in a classroom in Handan, Hebei province.
Active and alert.
By Jenny Anderson
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

You would think that students from Shanghai, who routinely trounce Americans (and everyone else) in tests of proficiency in math, reading, and science, are tethered to their desks all day, deprived of the freedom to frolic and play.

You would be wrong.

In Shanghai, 40% of the day in elementary school is spent playing, some of it structured but more of it unstructured. That’s nearly double the US, where 22% of the day for elementary school kids is spent on recess. At every grade level, students in Shanghai spend almost twice as much of the school day at play than their American counterparts:

Rong Chang and Fanni Liu Coward of Texas Tech University compared six schools in China and three in the US for their research in Phi Delta Kappan magazine.

They list the numerous benefits of recess, underpinned by science: physical activity can help kids to learn; teachers can better manage their classrooms because children are more focused; play fosters social development; and being active promotes physical well-being, which is helpful in battling childhood obesity.

In 2010, the US Centers for Disease Control reviewed 50 studies on the connection between physical activity and academic performance. It found positive associations in more than half of the studies and concluded that increasing physical activity in school would not detract from academic performance.

But the average recess in the US is 26 minutes per day, with schools that teach poorer children and have higher minority enrollments providing significantly less time for play.

Shanghai is not the only high-achieving system that sees the benefit of kids having playtime. In Finland, kids get 75 minutes of recess a day and a 15-minute break after every class (go here for more on Finland’s utopian education system).

In 2012, students in Shanghai topped every single category of PISA, the OECD’s global test of 15-year olds, by ridiculous margins—Chang and Coward note that kids in Shanghai were up to two years ahead in math compared with students in Massachusetts, the highest ranking US state. Finland did pretty well, too, while the US ranked 36th in math and not much better in reading and science.

To be sure, by middle school students in Shanghai spend a lot more time in the classroom than their US counterparts:

And as they get older, Chinese kids also spend a few hours every night in “self-study courses,” leaving the school day for teaching and instruction (and recess).

But Chang and Coward point outs that as kids in Shanghai get older and spend more time at school, they are also given more time for recess. In the US, it is the opposite. Chinese students also get more time for lunch—an hour in elementary school and half an hour in upper grades. And there is a 30-minute noon break at noon, in which some kids catch up on sleep.

The US seems to think that reducing recess will help to increase academic performance. Evidence from Shanghai’s playful brainiacs suggests otherwise.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.