Pediatric Group Says Recess Just As Important As Math, Reading
December 31, 2012

Pediatric Group Says Recess Just As Important As Math, Reading

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Ask a school full of children what their favorite part of the school day is and many will say recess. And while some education experts might feel recess is taking away from other important academic activities, at least one group is supporting play time at school.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a new policy statement saying recess should never be withheld for punitive or academic reasons. Recess helps keep children´s mind and body active, and withholding play time is counterproductive to healthy child development. Recess is most children´s favorite period, and parents and teachers should be encouraging it, according to the group.

Not only is recess crucial for the body and mind development, it is also important for social interaction, said AAP in their policy statement.

“Children need to have downtime between complex cognitive challenges,” said Dr. Robert Murray, a pediatrician and professor of human nutrition at Ohio State University and co-author of the statement. “They tend to be less able to process information the longer they are held to a task. It´s not enough to just switch from math to English. You actually have to take a break.”

Murray said increasing pressure put on educational systems to find more time for academics has led to “an erosion of recess time around the country.” After compiling a few decades worth of research, there is significant indication that “recess plays a huge role in a child's life, and not just because it's fun.”

Recess offers children “cognitive, physical, emotional and social benefits,” he added, including better attention span, improved classroom behavior, and an important opportunity for free, unstructured play, creativity and interaction with other kids.

The AAP began research on the role of recess back in 2007. They expected their research would uncover how important recess is as a physical outlet for children. What they found, however, was that the scheduled breaks extended way beyond just physical interactions. As well as affecting social, emotional and cognitive development, recess also “helps children practice conflict resolution if we allow them unstructured play, and it lets them come back to class more ready to learn and less fidgety,” according to the policy statement.

The policy could invigorate schools to either bring back or extend recess. Schools have been increasingly trimming down school days and adding more academic activities in place of recess in recent years. These school systems could be inadvertently destroying a much needed part in childhood development.

A recent national survey published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that just six states–Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Illinois and Iowa–adhere to standards from the National Association for Sports and Physical Education (NASPE) that schoolchildren participate in 150 minutes a week of physical education. And only three states–Delaware, Virginia and Nebraska–have 20 minutes of mandatory elementary school recess a day.

About 73 percent of elementary schools provide regular recess for all grades, but “it's difficult to quantify at a national level exactly how many schools are taking it away as a policy,” said Catherine Ramstetter, a health educator at The Christ College of Nursing and Health Sciences in Cincinnati and co-author of the statement.

Upwards of 40 percent of US school districts have reduced or eliminated recess to allow for more academic time, and one in four elementary schools no longer provides recess to all grades, according to studies cited by the policy authors.

A 2010 Gallup Survey of nearly 2,000 principals and school officials found that 77 percent of schools eliminate recess as a punishment and one in five cut recess time to meet testing requirements.

Ramstetter, who volunteers at the Catholic School in Cincinnati, OH, said she has personally encountered the challenges of maintaining regular recess. The inner-city school has no playground and only intermittent breaks either in the school´s gym or at a local park. And these intermittent breaks only occur up to fourth grade. She also reports that teachers will often withhold recess time as punishment.

Withholding recess as punishment is a big mistake, said the authors. Banning unruly kids from recess can backfire since these students are the ones who may potentially benefit the most from these break times.

It should also be noted that recess is not the same as physical education. Many schools use Phys. Ed. as means for replacing recess. Ramstetter said that while gym class offers children a chance to stretch their legs and get their heart rate up, it is still considered instructional time and has very different goals than those that come with unstructured recess.

She said it is also important to let kids play what and how they want, adding that playground monitors shouldn´t be stepping in and organizing playtime events. “When it´s structured, it´s not a break in the day,” she said.

While recess is important, the new AAP policy statement isn´t trying to force any hands. It is only calling for more studies to help determine how long breaks should be during the day. However, the statement authors said recess should be viewed as much an important part of the day as math and reading.

The policy authors said there´s a growing body of evidence that shows the power of recess improves overall concentration and creativity, not just for kids, but for adults as well.

Adults rarely sit down and spend two or three hours focusing on a single task. “We get up, we get coffee, we mix and match our tasks during the day so our concentration can stay sharp,” said Murray. “With kids, we have to schedule these breaks.”

Without such intentional periods of playtime, it is not just children´s waistlines that may suffer, but their ability to pay attention and their overall academic performance, according to the AAP authors.