Recess portrays the lives of six fourth graders as they go about their daily lives in a highly clichéd school environment. The students of Third Street School have set up a microcosm of traditional human society complete with its own government, class system, and set of unwritten laws. They are ruled by a monarch, King Bob, who has various enforcers to make sure his decrees are carried out. The little society has a long list of rigid values and social norms that imposes a high expectation of conformity upon all the students.
Recess is illustrated to be a symbol of freedom—a time when the kids can express themselves and develop meaningful relationships. Most episodes involve one or more of the main six characters seeking a rational balance between individuality and social order. They are often defending their freedom against perceived threats by adults or social norms. The group's leader, T.J. Detweiler, tends to have the most complete vision of this struggle, though even he has times when he inadvertently leads the group too far toward an extreme of conformity or nonconformity.