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What Schools Could Learn about the Importance of Recess from a Third Grade Science Fair Project

Cartoon by Marcia Liss`

Published in ChicagoNow, March 9, 2015

On Tuesdays, I watch my third-grade granddaughter after school. My assignment, should I choose to accept it, is to ensure that she does her homework. To any of you who caught my reference to Mission Impossible, even though I accept the assignment, sometimes the mission is next to impossible.

I started to look for a pattern. Why is she able to do homework without any fuss some days, but squirms, jokes around, and makes silly mistakes on other days? It finally hit me. On days when she has indoor recess and then gets a ride home due to cold weather, it is definitely mission impossible to get that homework done.

Just what constitutes indoor recess? Usually, it is a choice of watching cartoons or part of a movie or playing quiet board games. Sometimes, she is allowed to write a story with a friend or read a book of her choosing, a real treat for her. Sadly, what is does not include is any opportunity for movement or free play. Once I understood this, my granddaughter’s behavior made sense. We talked about it and I empathized with her need to be a bit goofy on indoor recess days.

So, when the science fair rolled around, she and her partner decided to investigate how the amount of physical activity they had on a given day impacted their lives. They wore Fitbits to measure the number of steps they took each day for a couple of weeks in February, which broke the record here for the coldest February ever.

Here are the results of their experiment in their own words:

“You get more steps on outdoor recess days than indoor recess days.
Total sleep minutes are the same on all days.
You get the most restless sleep on inside recess days.
The number of steps don’t affect your sleep amount.
On days when you take a lot of steps, your sleep quality is better.”
Their conclusions (bearing in mind they are in third grade):
“Kids should have more outdoor recess days because then their sleep will be better.
Supervision aides should give kids more play space. So they get more steps.
Supervision aides should let kids without boots go in the field because then kids will get more exercise.
Indoor recess – you should be allowed to run around and play games you make up that are active and safe, because then on indoor recess days you get more steps.
Our school should make outdoor recess possible when it is 15 degrees and up because then kids get more outside recess days.”

In her New York Times article This Winter, It’s Too Cool for School Recess, Ginia Bellafante describes how the children attending PS 126 have spent 40 consecutive days inside. Luckily for these children, a YMCA program provides 30 minutes of indoor recess that includes yoga and movement. That’s 30 more minutes of movement than my granddaughter receives on inside days, aside from gym class, to break up the hours spent inside sitting.

Of course, in Finland, the country with the world’s best educational system, the connection between outdoor play and optimal learning is a given. There, children receive up to 90 minutes of recess every day. And they play outside on cold days. Here, even though the American Academy of Pediatrics reported two years ago that recess plays what Bellafonte describes as “an essential role in children’s intellectual, social and emotional development [as well as] optimal cognitive processing,” we offer very little of it, even in good weather. The alternative for cold weather, indoor recess, mainly consists of passive activity minus the formal instruction.

Last winter, I wrote Meltdown Over Frozen Recess. I argued that keeping kids inside for day after day of indoor recess made them restless and listless learners. Unfortunately, the brutal cold winter and snowy, icy playgrounds have driven children inside once again. So maybe it’s time to learn something from a third-grade science project. Moving is healthier for the mind and body.

The kids aren’t asking for that much. They just want to run around and play for part of their day. We should honor that request, even if we have to find a way to do it indoors.


by Laurie Levy
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