The Importance of Unstructured Breaks for Students

by Jay Lynch
Incorporating frequent, outdoor unstructured breaks that allow for free play during a school day is very beneficial to school-aged children. If you consider the highly competitive nature of standardized tests and the growing pressure on students - and teachers - to perform at greater levels, the academic stakes are high. This can be especially true for middle school children who are already going through a changing and transitional period. But what about the mental, physical, social, and emotional stakes?

In Daniel Pink’s best-selling book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, he identifies at least six benefits of unstructured outdoor free play. He found that students: 
  • Work harder, fidget less, and focus more intently
  • Often earn better grades
  • Develop better social skills
  • Show greater empathy
  • Cause fewer disruptions
  • Eat healthier foods
Pink goes on to say that breaks and recess are not breaks from learning, but they are part of learning. And it’s not just the students who benefit. Teachers end up with students who are more engaged in the classroom, more relaxed, and better behaved when they’ve had a chance to play outdoors, even in small increments of time.
According to The LiiNK Project, an ongoing research study inspired by the Finnish educational system, unstructured outdoor play allows children to reboot their brains and reset their bodies for learning through play their way. LiiNK identifies additional benefits from recess time:
  • Improved Muscle Mass and Decreased Fat Mass
  • Better Sleeping Habits
  • Lower BMI Scores
  • Improved Gross and Fine Motor Skills
Interestingly, “outdoor” is key to reaping all of the benefits of unstructured free play. Research by LiiNK shows that the outdoors represents a relaxed environment, providing whole person positive elements. The outdoors naturally relieves stress. When one focuses on trees, grass, and plant and animal life, stress and anxiety are naturally decreased and mental health is improved.
Outdoor free play is beneficial at school and at home. Parents who allow time for this kind of play at home are pleased to witness the same positive outcomes in their children.
At Pinecrest Academy, the Middle School schedule employs a highly structured, distinctive program that addresses the particular needs of this age group. The unstructured free play that occurs during middle school recess has tremendous value in developing social, emotional, and leadership skills. The schedule is built to allow for multiple breaks throughout the day. Each student has an elective class before lunch and two outdoor play times during the day that serves to maximize their focus in class and direct their energy toward more positive outlets. 
To learn more about the benefits to children of unstructured outdoor free play, visit The LiiNK Project’s website. And check out chapter two in Daniel Pink’s book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.
Jay Lynch is PreK3-8th grade Dean of Students at Pinecrest Academy. He is passionate about student formation and is integrally involved with the school’s virtue development program and student leadership opportunities.  He can be reached at