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Claire McCarthy, M.D. Headshot

Children Need Recess -- and Schools Need Help

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Lots of times, when I ask my patients what they think is the best part of school, they say, "recess."

They may be on to something.

This week, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) came out with a policy statement titled "The Crucial Role of Recess in School." Recess, they say, is necessary for the health and development of children and should never be withheld for punishment or for academic reasons.

Here's why recess is so crucial:

• When kids get breaks, they are more able to learn.
• Through play at recess, kids learn communication skills such as negotiation, cooperation, sharing and problem-solving.
• Play also gives kids opportunities to practice coping skills, such as perseverance and self-control.
• Kids need exercise. The AAP recommends an hour a day, and recess helps with that.
• Kids need to play, "for the sheer joy of it." Mental health is important too.

The policy statement talks about how to be sure children are safe and properly supervised during recess -- things like safe spaces and equipment, safety rules, policies against aggression and bullying and having enough appropriately trained grownups in the vicinity. It discusses the length and scheduling of recess (there are lots of different ways to do it, and a before-lunch recess seems to be good for behavior and making sure that kids eat lunch). It also talks about the pros and cons of "structured recess," when games and physical activity are led by an adult (pros: more exercise, inclusion and adult involvement; cons: lack of all the benefits of an unstructured break).

But the bottom line is this: Kids need recess. They need it as much as anything else they get at school.

As I read the policy statement, it got me thinking about how we are asking a lot of schools these days. We want them to do a better job of educating our kids (which is the main reason recess gets threatened -- schools want to use that time for academics), we want them to teach kids social skills (including teaching them not to bully), keep them physically healthy (we get upset that schools don't consistently offer gym) and support their mental health as well. For low-income kids, we want the schools to feed them, too.

And yet, the average teacher salary in the United States is only about $50,000 (the starting salary is around $39,000, which isn't very attractive when you've got school loans to pay back). According to the National Education Association, between 1998 and 2008, salaries declined one percent, while inflation went up 31.4 percent. Not exactly the way you recruit and keep people -- and indeed, the teacher dropout problem is as big as the student dropout problem, with almost half of new teachers leaving the profession in the first five years, and an overall teacher dropout rate of about 10 percent. Funding is always a problem, especially for special education; we only spend about 5 percent of our GDP on education -- which, given how central education is for our children and our future, is kind of shameful.

Oh -- and the average school day is about six and a half hours. Not much time to get all this stuff done.

That's why I hope that this report doesn't just make people talk about recess. I hope that it makes people talk about school in general, and about everything we need it to do for our children. And I really hope that as people talk about everything that schools need to do for our children, they realize that resources and support -- much more than we currently are giving them -- are necessary.

We also need, as parents and communities, to understand that it's not just the responsibility of schools to be sure that children get exercise and play and help with communication and coping skills. It's our responsibility, too.

Our children are our future. Let's do what it takes to make that future a good one.