To Play or Not to Play: The Value of Recess in Schools



An Article by Erica L. Stack, and Brian M. Stack

Parents of today want their children to be the best, the fastest, and the smartest. In pursuit of meeting these goals, many schools have added more time for instruction and testing for core content areas. The added time often comes at the expense of recess, physical education, and many other forms of movement breaks and activities.  As parents of five children under the age of ten, we see the impact of this shift in our own community school each and every day.  After spending most of their school day with minimal physical activity, our children get off the afternoon bus and enter our house full of an energy that can barely be contained.  It is a struggle to corral them to sit long enough to do their homework before they can engage in any number of extra-curricular activities that we have planned for them to release that energy such as sports practice, cub scouts, or just some much-needed play with the neighborhood kids.

Our kids simply don’t have the time that they should for physical activity at school. Our oldest son has said that often, he asks to go to the bathroom or sharpen his pencil just to have a chance to move around. Lunch and recess provide his only real outlet on some days for activity, yet the time allotted for these activities is so short.

The experiences our children have faced are not unique to their school. There exists a growing body of research, such as this research brief that was published last month, highlighting the strong correlation between physical activity and academic performance, both in the short term and the long term. “Almost immediately after engaging in physical activity, children are better able to concentrate on classroom tasks, which can enhance learning. Over time, as children engage in developmentally appropriate physical activity, their improved physical fitness can have additional positive effects on academic performance in mathematics, reading, and writing.”

Recently in a Multibriefs Exclusive, Bob Kowalski explored whether or not schools could keep students focused with reductions to PE and recess. His article highlighted research that supports a strong connection between physical activity and learning and his concern that despite this understanding, many schools are reducing opportunities for students to engage in physical activity. He writes, “Reductions in recess and cuts in physical education classes have effects that go beyond children's fitness. The lack of physical activity has a bearing on learning ability as well.” Kowalski went on to highlight several classroom tools that are being used to provide students the opportunity for movement during classroom instruction. These tools ranged from instructional strategies that teachers could use to get kids out of their seats to actual devices like stationary bikes, floor chairs, and rubber band attachments for desks that provide students movement opportunity while they are still seated in the classroom.

Still, there is no effective replacement for a good old-fashioned recess. In a recent Mind/Shift article entitled More Playtime! How Kids Succeed with Recess Four Times a Day at School, KERA’s Christopher Connelly writes about a Fort Worth Texas elementary school that recently tripled its recess offerings from fifteen minutes to a full hour each day. The move is part of a school-wide effort to focus on the growth of character development such as empathy and positive behavior. The model has been studied by Ohio State University pediatrician Bob Murray, who wrote: “If you want a child to be attentive and stay on task, and also if you want them to encode the information you’re giving them in their memory, you’ve got to give them regular breaks.” He echoed what Eagle Mountain teachers have already discovered: Kids learn better after a break for physical activity and unstructured play. 

For schools, the real question is whether or not they can justify recess as instructional time. It is likely that they can. In New Hampshire, for example, elementary schools may count up to 30 minutes of recess per day as instructional time for pupils in kindergarten through grade 6. Clark County School District in Nevada mandates at least thirty daily minutes of recess in each of its elementary schools. As this debate continues, many schools may rethink how they use recess time and begin to recognize how that time can also be used to provide important social-emotional learning for students.

Our children aren't simply small adults, and we should not expect them to act as such.  In the workforce, it is mandated that employees get breaks during their day.  A child's attention span is far less than that of an adult. We have a national obesity problem with our children, and we also know that they often lag behind other countries in academic achievement. Doing what we have always done and expecting a different result makes no sense.  Something needs to change, and it should start with listening to what the research tells us: Our children need more opportunity for physical activity.

This article was written originally for MultiBriefs Education.

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