Over the past three years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States has seen a serious mental health crisis deepen among its youth.

Many proposed solutions have focused on schools as the sites of delivery, which makes sense–schools are where we can be sure of getting the most services to the most kids, and are places that “play a central role in fostering children’s emotional development and well-being.”

However, it does raise a more fundamental question: how can we make sure that the structure of school itself is helping kids manage and improve their mental health?

A cooperative school environment can boost not just students’ sense of wellbeing, but their academic performance as well. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, is one of the world’s largest research organizations, and every few years, it administers student achievement testing through an exam called the PISA, as well as student wellbeing and school climate surveys. The OECD reports that “students scored higher in reading when they reported greater co-operation amongst their peers.”

Their work also shows that students in the US are part of an education system which is considered “one of the most competitive” in the world. As such, the United States could consider a different approach, one which emphasizes student cooperation. We can start by giving students more time to develop cooperative interactions with their peers through play.

It’s well-established in medical research that cooperative skills are developed through play. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “[p]eer play usually involves problem solving about the rules of the game, which requires negotiation and cooperation.” In other words, more play time can make for more cooperative schools.

A proven international model for how to incorporate more play into school structures can be found in Finland. The country has remarkably happy students, and Finnish students report that they are, on average, more cooperative than their peers in the OECD (the United States is less cooperative than the OECD average). Finnish students also spend a lot more time playing; the standard Finnish school day is scheduled so that “a lesson is 45 minutes long followed by a 15- minute recess,” according to the researcher Pasi Sahlberg. This results in about an hour of time devoted to play every day.

This is not just a Finnish model; the education researcher Anthony Pellegrini notes that many East Asian countries (whose students regularly out-perform US students on international exams like the PISA) have school schedules where “children are given a 10-minute break every 40 minutes or so” in between their classes. In my own experience teaching in Taiwanese schools, most students get a 10-minute break between 50-minute lessons, which fits into the larger international pattern where recess ‘rounds off’ an hour of the instructional day.

This is a radically different model from that used in the United States, where US News reports that over the past 20 years, students have lost about an hour of daily recess. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the past several years have also seen an explosion in youth rates of increasing stress and mental illness–certainly not solely attributable to a lack of playtime, but an increasingly frantic and pressurized school environment is unlikely to help with students’ psychological wellbeing.

Trial programs in the US have started to demonstrate a link between bringing back recess time and improved student outcomes. Schools who participated in the LiiNK project, one such program that added two 15-minute recesses through each school day, saw students who were “significantly more active during the school day and displayed higher percentages of positive emotions on the playground than comparison school students” who did not receive the additional recess time.

These benefits to students are also reflected in teacher assessments of increased research programs; one study asked teachers to describe what, if any, benefits they saw from the increased recess time: one of the main findings was that “children acted friendlier to each other, and they had more opportunities to problem-solve with peers.” In other words: more recess, along the schedules common in schools in the rest of the world, can combat the unusually low level of cooperation present in US schools. In the words of one teacher who observed the change, students with a Finnish recess schedule “learn to cooperate, communicate, and compromise, all skills they need to succeed academically as well as in life.”

Students in US schools are stressed, depressed, and anxious. Increasing their recess time might be one part of the solution to these problems. In doing so, the US would be following established practices from school systems that regularly out-perform ours. More importantly, however, we would be taking a step to ensure that our schools are places where children don’t just learn, but where they thrive.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by Tristan Reynolds, a 2021 Teach For America Corps Member who teaches 8th grade English Language Arts/Reading (ELAR) at the Academy for Academic Enhancement Middle School in Rio Grande City, Texas. The column appears in The Rio Grande Guardian International News Service with the permission of the author.