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Scientific Proof That Kids Need Recess

Published in ChicagoNow, March 8, 2016

At her elementary school science fair, my granddaughter explained her poster and experiment with the great fervor an almost ten-year-old can muster. She and her friend, who is in California on a family sabbatical, decided to prove once and for all that recess improves learning, or at least puts students in a receptive mood so they can benefit from classroom instruction.

No doubt they got the idea for their experiment from listening to their parents’ conversations about the importance of recess. The Great Recess Debate has been raging in our community since parents and a school board member asked for a “recess as a right rather than a privilege” policy. You would have thought the sky had fallen given the opposition from administrators, the school board, and some teachers.

The question my granddaughter and her friend decided to explore for the science fair was, “Does the amount of recess affect your mood.” Their main hypothesis was that it does, and as a result it impacts learning. As background, they offered the following facts:

1. Some schools have cut recess because they think it gives kids more time to learn.

2. Studies show that after recess kids pay better attention in class.

3. People have better moods after they exercise.

Their methods may seem naïve, but they decided to compare their moods in the morning, after the child in California had recess while my granddaughter had none, their moods after lunch when both had recess, and their moods in the afternoon when neither had recess. They used a scale that measured moods ranging from alert, excited elated, happy, contented, serene, relaxed, calm, fatigued, bored, depressed, sad, upset, stressed, nervous, and tense. Did I mention three out of four of their parents have PhDs in child psychology?

The results of their mood reports were that the child with morning recess felt pleasant after recess while my granddaughter felt fatigued at the same time of day. After lunch, both of their moods were activated, but my granddaughter’s mood was also impacted by lunch/recess drama. Did I mention that the friend in California is a boy? Afternoon moods were more calm and pleasant for the child with more recess, and both agreed they were in the best moods on early dismissal days. They concluded that more recess was related to better moods and that they were both happiest when doing more active projects at school.

Yes, this was not a highly scientific study, but that’s not the point. Amid multiple displays of volcanoes and lava lamps, their project attracted the attention of lots of parents who nodded their heads in approval. After all, there is real scientific proof out there that these kids were onto something important.

Researchers Anthony D. Pellegrini and Catherine M. Bohn-Gettler found that “empirical research does not support the elimination or reduction of recess.” In fact, research finds the opposite is true. Classroom behavior and achievement improve when children have the opportunity for breaks in their academic learning in the form of unstructured free play. This finding is supported by numerous controlled experiments.

The benefits of recess include physical fitness, improved classroom behavior and attention, and the development of social competence including cooperation, conflict resolution, and perspective taking skills. Numerous studies support what adults know from their own work experience. Without breaks, the brain becomes less efficient. Ironically, when teachers devote long chunks of time to classroom instruction, academic achievement decreases.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP),

“Recess serves as a necessary break from the rigors of concentrated, academic challenges in the classroom. But equally important is the fact that safe and well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it. Recess is unique from, and a complement to, physical education—not a substitute for it. The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.”

This statement supports the folks in my community who called for eliminating recess as a punishment and initiated the Great Recess Debate. Children’s physical activity specialist and the author of 18 books for teachers and parents, Rae Pica, agrees that withholding recess should not be used as a punishment because, in addition to the reasons given by the AAP, it doesn’t work.

“Experimental studies and anecdotal evidence point out that in any given school, it’s generally the same children who tend to have their recess withheld, indicating that the threat is ineffective… Demanding that children move less and sit more is counterproductive. Research, and our own common sense, tells us we should be doing the opposite.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believe “recess should be scheduled at regular intervals, providing children sufficient time to regain their focus before instruction continues.” And the pediatricians of the AAP (lead authors Robert Murray, MD and Catherine Ramstetter, PhD) would like policy-makers to consider the following six points:

“Recess is a necessary break in the day for optimizing a child’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development. In essence, recess should be considered a child’s personal time, and it should not be withheld for academic or punitive reasons.
Cognitive processing and academic performance depend on regular breaks from concentrated classroom work. This applies equally to adolescents and to younger children. To be effective, the frequency and duration of breaks should be sufficient to allow the student to mentally decompress.
Recess is a complement to, but not a replacement for, physical education. Physical education is an academic discipline. Whereas both have the potential to promote activity and a healthy lifestyle, only recess (particularly unstructured recess) provides the creative, social, and emotional benefits of play.
Recess can serve as a counterbalance to sedentary time and contribute to the recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day, a standard strongly supported by AAP policy as a means to lessen risk of overweight.
Whether structured or unstructured, recess should be safe and well supervised. Although schools should ban games and activities that are unsafe, they should not discontinue recess altogether just because of concerns connected with child safety. Environmental conditions, well-maintained playground equipment, and well-trained supervisors are the critical components of safe recess.
Peer interactions during recess are a unique complement to the classroom. The lifelong skills acquired for communication, negotiation, cooperation, sharing, problem solving, and coping are not only foundations for healthy development but also fundamental measures of the school experience.”

There is no research supporting a link between keeping kids in the classroom for longer stretches of time and higher test scores. And there is much research supporting the benefits of recess for children’s learning, social-emotional development, and physical fitness. The majority of principals and teachers confirm that withholding recess as a punishment doesn’t work. So, although my granddaughter’s science project, based on the ratings of two children, is certainly not scientific research, her findings do line up with what we know from numerous valid studies. Kids who get more recess are less fidgety and more attentive and focused. They learn important social skills and are more physically fit.

Given this, it is no wonder so many parents were delighted by her poster and are advocating for more frequent recess breaks and a policy that supports recess as a right rather than a privilege. In my article The State of Education is Not Strong, I shared the shock I still feel that this common sense and research-based recess policy is such a heavy lift in my community. For now, the request has hit a brick wall of opposition and the Great Recess Debate is tabled.

But here’s the thing: Parents and community members elect school boards to represent their interests. The community’s taxes pay administrators. Is it unreasonable to expect to be listened to so fourth graders don’t have to wonder why the grownups in charge don’t see what they intuitively know? Kids need a break from the expectations our educational system places on them. Let them play a bit and they will be much better learners.


by Laurie Levy
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