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Debunking the Belief That Recess Is Optional

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How many times a day did you have recess when you were in school? My classmates and I had it twice daily in elementary school, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that during those free periods, I found my calling. You see, I was the one who, along with my friend Kathy, was choreographing dances to Beatles’ songs and performing them for the other kids. That love of movement and the freedom to express myself (not to mention feeling comfortable doing it in front of others) led me down a path that ultimately brought me to much of the work I’ve done for almost four decades.

But according to the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play (sadly, we do seem to need such an organization), approximately 40 percent of U.S. elementary schools have eliminated recess from the children’s day. And there have been – and continue to be – schools being built without playgrounds. The primary reasons are the clamor for more “academics” and the need to prepare students for testing.

That might be reasonable 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 our children can’t afford not to have recess.

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

  • Studies have shown that people function better and produce more 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 especially benefit from breaks. Finland has put the research to use. Their schools provide the children with a 15-minute break after every 45 minutes of instruction – and their schools are doing so well that they attract educators from all over the world who want to learn from them.
  • It’s not true that there’s no time for recess. 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 both on recess and non-recess days. The result was that 60 percent of the children, including the five suffering from attention disorders, 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.
  • The outside light stimulates the pineal gland, 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 also triggers the synthesis of Vitamin D, and a number of studies have demonstrated that it increases productivity as well.
  • If you want to optimize your body’s performance, you feed it. It works the same way with the brain. Moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity delivers “food” to the brain in the form of water, oxygen, and glucose. Further, movement increases the capacity of blood vessels, allowing for the delivery of that brain food. 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 have a better attitude toward school. There’s a reason why psychiatry professor John Ratey calls physical activity “Miracle-Gro for the brain.”
  • The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) recommends unstructured physical play as a developmentally appropriate way of reducing stress in children’s lives. Because we now know 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. That kind of control is a rarity in their lives and offers more preparation for adulthood than does memorizing state capitals!
  • Children need to learn to be social creatures – to become part of a society – and recess may be the only time during the day when they have a chance to experience the socialization and authentic communication that will help them learn how. Typically, while in school children aren’t allowed to interact freely during class or to talk to each other while lining up or moving from one area to another. Some school policies even prevent children from talking to one another during lunch! And, as you know, neighborhoods aren’t what they used to be, so once the school day ends there may be little opportunity for social interaction. How can children with so few occasions to socialize and communicate be expected to live and work together as adults? When and where will they have learned how?
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in six American kids is obese, which means our children’s health is at risk. Children burn the most calories outdoors. That’s also the place for children to practice emerging physical skills and to experience the pure joy of movement, both of which increase the odds that they’ll become lifelong movers – and healthy adults. And don’t forget: physical activity is essential even if your child has no weight issues.

As you can see, there are many excellent reasons – and plenty of research – demonstrating that recess shouldn’t be considered optional. But as a parent, it’s likely you don’t need research to prove that point. If you’re watching your child come home from school stressed and exhausted every day, it’s more than evident.

What’s a Parent to Do?

  • If your child’s school has eliminated recess, become an advocate! Check out the advocacy suggestions at the website of the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play.
  • Ask administrators who have eliminated recess not only to review the research but also to recall a time when they’ve been forced to sit all day (perhaps at a meeting or on a plane). If they wondered why they were so tired at the end of the day, it was because sitting makes us tired. Since that’s not a state conducive to learning, why would we ask students to sit more?
  • Don’t accept “bullying prevention” as an excuse for the elimination of recess. Children need to be taught how to get along. If kids were having trouble with reading, we wouldn’t take away their books!
  • If behavior on the playground is being used as rationale, find out when your child’s school schedules recess. If it’s offered after lunch, encourage administrators to switch it to before lunch. There’s evidence that children who have lunch first are often shoveling their food down their throat and even throwing a lot of it away so they can go play. When they play first, they’re calmer and better behaved in the cafeteria and return to the classroom more relaxed and ready to learn.
  • Speak to the teacher (and principal, if necessary) if your child is having recess withheld as punishment. Withholding recess is not a logical consequence for most infractions, which renders the punishment meaningless. Moreover, it doesn’t work! In any given school it’s generally the same children who tend to have their recess withheld, indicating that the threat is ineffective. Finally, if your child is having recess withheld, she or he probably needs it more than most. And, given all the information above, denying a child recess is simply wrong.
  • If your child doesn’t get recess during the day, make sure he or she has plenty of opportunity for free play – preferably outdoors – after school!

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