Transformational! Play Pays Off as Impact of Middle School Recess is Felt Across Fairfax County

By Office of Communication and Community Relations
November 14, 2022

At the beginning of this school year, Fairfax County Public Schools introduced middle school recess after a pilot program showed this age group does better in the classroom when free play factors into their day.

According to principals, students, and teachers, that decision, along with the move to eliminate cell phone usage, is already paying dividends.

Now, on blacktops and playing fields at schools across the county, pick-up football, games of tag, and huddles of UNO take place each day.

With phones “away for the day” conversations have now replaced texting, social media drama has declined dramatically and friendships are being formed and strengthened.

A student from Walt Whitman Middle School plays on a chalked path
A student from Walt Whitman Middle School enjoys some fresh fall air during the 15-minute break from class.

“Watching everything that is happening during recess is a nice reminder that these children are still only 12 years old and they benefit from unstructured play,” said Walt Whitman Middle School assistant principal, Matthew Johnson. 

He added, “The introduction of recess has been a very positive experience. Kids are running around and getting their energy out. Others are taking the time to socialize and sit with friends. We are seeing that kids are more focused in the classroom and in a better mood. It has been a game changer.”

Whitman Assistant Principal Matthew Johnson joins in a game of UNO with students.
Whitman Assistant Principal Matthew Johnson joins in a game of UNO with students.


Last April, the Fairfax County School Board voted to update its student and staff health and wellness policy to allow for a 15-minute recess period every day. The change received unanimous support and is aligned with the work being carried about by the division to focus on the social-emotional learning of all our students.

A group of female students from Herndon Middle School sit on a wall.
Students from Herndon Middle School have more time to develop friendships thanks to the additional free time.

On the Whitman playing field in Alexandria, it is evident just how appreciated that change in policy is as students rush outside after lunch to make the most of every second. 

In one corner of the field, a game of kickball is taking place, and in another a lively game of football. Elsewhere, students are chatting, others are reading and enjoying the fresh fall air.

Eighth-grader Sharif Gaines, picks up a football and takes his position as star linebacker out on the field each day. He knows how important this time for physical activity can be for his age group.

“We need to move our bodies. I know that I can’t sit still for long periods of time, I’m always moving. If I didn't have this, I’d have to get up and take a walk and stretch during class,” he said.

“Some kids play sports, some just walk around. Everybody does something different.”

On days when the weather isn’t suited to outdoor play, traditional board games and books become the go-to activity.