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Reading, Writing, 'Rithmetic...and Recess

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According to the American Association for the Child's Right to Play (and, yes, it seems we do need such an organization), approximately 40 percent of the elementary schools in the U.S. have eliminated recess from the children's day. The primary reason, of course, is the need to focus on academics. With all of the standards to be met and tests to be taken, there simply isn't time for something as "frivolous" as recess.

It might be a reasonable argument if (a) standards and tests were all that mattered in a child's education, (b) children consisted of heads only, and (c) the research didn't confirm that children can't afford not to have recess.

Here, then, are seven contradictions to the belief that recess is frivolous:

  • Everyone benefits from a break. As far back as 1885 and 1901, the research is quite clear on this: Both children and adults learn better and more quickly when their efforts are distributed (breaks are included) than when concentrated (work is conducted in longer periods). More recently, the novelty-arousal theory has suggested that people function better when they have a change of pace. Because young children don't process most information as effectively as older children (due to the immaturity of their nervous systems and their lack of experience), they can especially benefit from breaks.

  • Recess increases on-task time. Dr. Olga Jarrett and her colleagues approached an urban school district with a policy against recess. They received permission for two fourth-grade classes to have recess once a week so they could determine the impact on the children's behavior on recess and non-recess days. The result was that the 43 children became more on-task and less fidgety on days when they had recess. Sixty percent of the children, including the five suffering from attention deficit disorder, worked more and/or fidgeted less on recess days. Dr. Jarrett's research demonstrated that a 15-minute recess resulted in the children being five percent more on-task and nine percent less fidgety, which translated into 20 minutes saved during the day. 

  • Children need outside light. The outside light stimulates the pineal gland, which is the part of the brain that helps regulate our biological clock, is vital to the immune system, and simply makes us feel better. Outside light triggers the synthesis of Vitamin D. And a number of studies have demonstrated that it increases academic learning and productivity.
  • Physical activity feeds the brain. Thanks to advances in brain research, we now know that most of the brain is activated during physical activity -- much more so than when doing seatwork. Sitting increases fatigue and reduces concentration. Movement, conversely, increases the capacity of blood vessels (and possibly even their number), allowing for the delivery of oxygen, water, and glucose ("brain food") to the brain. This optimizes the brain's performance and may be the reason why numerous studies have shown that students who are physically active improve their academic performance, achieve higher test scores, and demonstrate a better attitude toward school. 

  • Unstructured physical play reduces stress. The National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends unstructured physical play as a developmentally appropriate way of reducing stress in children's lives. Because studies show that stress has a negative impact on learning, as well as on health, we should be looking to any natural means of relieving it. For many children, especially those who are hyperactive or potentially so, recess is an opportunity to blow off steam. Outdoors, children can engage in behaviors (loud, messy, and boisterous) considered unacceptable and annoying indoors. And because recess is a break from structure and expectations, children have an opportunity to take control of their world, which is a rarity in their lives and which offers more preparation for adulthood than does memorizing the state capitals. 

  • Children need to learn to be social creatures. Recess may be the only time during the day when children have an opportunity to experience socialization and real communication. Neighborhoods are not what they used to be, so once the school day ends, there may be little chance for social interaction. Typically, while in school children are not allowed to interact during class, while lining up, or when moving from one area of the school to another. Some school policies even prevent children from talking to one another during lunch. Is it any wonder that American corporations are spending money on team-building skills for their young employees? How can children with so few opportunities to socialize and communicate be expected to live and work together as adults? When and where will they have learned how? 

  • Our children's health is at risk. We're all aware that many of our children are suffering from overweight and obesity. One in six American kids is obese, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center to Prevent Childhood Obesity. It is in the outdoors that children burn the most calories. But even children who have no weight issues require physical activity to sustain optimal health. Children who don't have the opportunity to be active during the school day don't usually compensate during after-school hours. In contrast, research has shown that children who are physically active in school are more likely to be physically active at home. The outdoors is the best place for children to practice emerging physical skills and to experience the pure joy of movement, both of which increase the odds that they will become lifelong movers -- and healthy adults.

Recently, in my role as a children's physical activity consultant, I had the opportunity to address this issue on NAESP Radio, the radio program for the National Association of Elementary School Principals. Principals and others unfamiliar with the research on recess and physical activity can learn more about it in this 11-minute segment.

In 1929, writing in The Aims of Education, Alfred North Whitehead stated: "I lay it down as an educational axiom that in teaching you will come to grief as soon as you forget that your pupils have bodies." It seems no one was paying attention. Perhaps they'll pay attention now.