When the afternoon exodus at my son’s elementary school ejects Theo, 7, he drops his backpack and runs off to play so quickly I wonder whether he notices I’m there to pick him up. This is okay because sometimes, running late from my daughter’s preschool, I actually am not there. Once I am, though, I often linger—in company with other parents giving their kids more playground time.
Our kids slide, swing, climb, run, throw footballs, wrestle, chase, balance, move rocks and dig in the sand. Sometimes they gather around one kid’s cool book or a bug that somehow survived the school-bell stampede. Siblings mix up age interactions.
“Whenever I can, I stay awhile so he can play more,” one mother says, with something like resignation.
Our kids’ elementary school happily becomes a school-community playground—and she and I are lucky we have flexible schedules that accommodate this extra recess time. But these are rather like consolation prizes. Our first-graders get 30-35 minutes of recess every day, which is on the middle to high end in public schools locally and nationally. It’s not enough.
Our kids need more unstructured playtime, according to a growing cohort of developmental psychologists, neuroscientists, pediatricians and educators, along with us lingering parents and others whose schedules don’t allow lingering.
“I think kids should get an hour of recess,” says a leader in our school’s Parent-Teacher-Kids Association. “I don’t see it as time wasted; I see it very much as time added to productive learning. If a school isn’t giving kids enough recess time, it’s like it’s shooting itself in the foot.”
Aside from its central role in the very definition of childhood, time to goof off outside is critical to learning.
“Recess is one of the few places and times during the day when [physical, social, emotional and cognitive] developmental domains are utilized in a context that children view as meaningful,” notes the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS/SDE).
Integrating developmental domains is important. In unstructured free play—aka recess—kids forge cooperative peer relationships; learn negotiation and self-control strategies; and practice being leaders and mediators. They interact with the outdoors, which helps them recharge and pay attention in different ways than the attention required for math drills, reading and filling in standardized-test bubbles. During recess, kids hone executive-level functions like planning, reasoning and creative problem solving; they apply lessons learned in class and are imaginative in their play; they animate their bodies and prefrontal cortexes.
Recess is balance—from the inner ear’s vestibular complex, stimulated when kids flip, flop and hang upside down, to a reiterative format for the work/life, mind/body balance American adults are always seeking.
Are we too busy searching for this elusive sense ourselves to recognize it on the playground? More problematically, are we so focused on kids’ and schools’ so-called achievements that we strip away a source of balance fundamental to childhood—and, hopefully, one that guides our kids to joyfully build adult lives?
The playground is our children’s realm. What happens there carries a different meaning than what happens in the classroom because it’s a kid-directed environment. When kids learn and practice skills at recess, they retain them differently. Outdoor free play directly influences the aptitudes measured within school walls.
Educators know this. A national Gallup survey of principals on school recess found that “elementary school principals overwhelmingly believe recess has a positive impact not only on the development of students’ social skills, but also on achievement and learning in the classroom.” A solid two-thirds of surveyed principals said that kids listened better and were more focused on class activities after recess. Teacher reports back this up.
A lot of research backs this up. Right now, a bunch of it is spread across my desk. It’s almost overwhelming. I need a recess: Just 20 minutes to go on a run or something…
At least 20 minutes is what many organizations with long names and awkward acronyms recommend for daily recess. Twenty minutes—as part of the recommended 60 minutes per day of physical activity. This is a low bar!
Yet it’s too much for many public schools, which face rising calls to quantify everything from student test scores to teacher evaluations to instructional minutia. Despite decades of supportive research, recess remains the easiest thing to cut. Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 60 percent of school districts have no policy addressing daily elementary-school recess. Fewer than half of those that do, require at least 20 minutes.
In Santa Fe Public Schools, elementary students get 15-45 minutes of daily recess, depending on their school, grade and teacher. Of the SFPS schools that shared this public information, six provide their students with one or two daily recesses totaling 15-29 minutes; ten offer 30-39 minutes; two give 40-45 minutes (some schools’ kindergartens fall in this range, even if their upper grades do not); and two have one 15-minute recess (one school for grades K-6, one for 4-6). The rumor mill anticipates these numbers diminishing in the face of increased, top-down pressure for instruction time and test preparation.
No research indicates that this approach will help anyone, least of all students.
“In the first five years of No Child Left Behind, almost half of US school districts took significant time away from recess and creative curricula in favor of the math and reading that’s subject to standardized tests,” reports Michael Behar in a recent article. “Yet in 2010 the CDC found that physical activity in school improves academic performance, including on standardized tests; there was ‘no evidence’ that recess was negatively associated with cognitive skills or academics.” (Here's a link to the CDC report.)
In other words, our public schools are not only supporting policies unjustified by research, they are supporting policies that defeat their objectives—presumably, better educated students and higher test scores.
Pressures are hardly abating: Race to the Top, PARCC testing, Common Core State Standard curriculum guides and state mandates for the hours of instructional time lost to weeks of testing and test prep that must be made up somewhere. School funding is tied to these itemizable items, not to recess, not to well-roundedness, not to healthy child development or holistic education.
Still, if we suppose our policy makers and administrators follow relevant research, then they are willfully ignoring decades of studies that link unstructured physical activity with higher academic performance and healthier kids. These links range from correlative longitudinal studies to brain scanning; journals of pediatrics to journals of exercise physiology; ADHD therapies to affective neuroscience and gene sampling from rat brains.
It’s notable that many schools—nationally and locally—address links between exercise and academics through valuable physical education classes; some SFPS kids get up to 120 minutes of PE a week. Here, though, I’m focusing on recess, which adds social/emotional, creative, child-directed components to the physical/neurophysical benefits of PE.
A recent study in the medical journal Pediatrics measured electrical brain activity and executive-control behaviors in children completing certain cognitive tasks. Some children did regular physical activity; the control group didn’t. Bombshell: The kids who exercised showed greater brain processing capacity and cognitive flexibility. The study’s authors said their findings “demonstrate a causal effect of a physical program on executive control, and provide support for physical activity for improving childhood cognition and brain health.”
This and other studies are revealing scientific bases for movement as an effective therapy for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
In 2011, 11 percent of US kids were diagnosed with ADHD, up from 7.8 percent in 2003, according to the CDC. The number of kids on ADHD medications rose, too. Some researchers estimate that only about 4 percent of children are born with the legitimate psychiatric disorder. This suggests that more kids either acquire or are diagnosed with ADHD behaviors than necessarily justify the number of Ritalin and Adderall prescriptions.
When we take away kids’ opportunities for free play—for their exercise of curiosity, impulsivity, conflict and resolution, not to mention their bodies—we deprive them of basic human, even mammalian, instincts. Deprivation has consequences, and the behavioral consequences of young kids made to sit still for hours on end include—guess what?— anxiety, restlessness, disengagement, irritability, depression and a documented lack of brain activity.
“Children naturally start fidgeting in order to get the movement their body so desperately needs and is not getting enough of to ‘turn their brain on,’” writes pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom in a Washington Post article. “What happens when the children start fidgeting? We ask them to sit still and pay attention; therefore, their brain goes back to ‘sleep.’”
I did this to Theo last week during homework time. He wiggled and flipped his pencil around, severely prolonging the time it took to fit three rhombuses in a hexagon. I did not ask him to sit still and pay attention; I yelled, “Stop it! Just focus!” After 30 minutes of worksheet and fidget management, I was so tense my hands clawed.
Then I remembered what I was writing about. I sent my 7-year-old outside. “Go run or climb a tree or something,” I said. “We’ll finish after you get some wiggles out.”
Recess advocates are not fringe organizations. In addition to the NAECS/SDE, there’s the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), National Association for State Boards of Education (NASBE), National American Association for the Child’s Right to Play (IPA/USA), Alliance for Childhood, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (AAHPERD), US Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS), US Department of Education (USDE), National Parent-Teacher Association, the CDC and others.
We also can consult New Mexico Public Education Department’s “Wellness Policy Guidance Document.” The good news is that NM addresses recess as part of student wellness. Not all states in the NASBE State School Health Policy Database do, even though we live in a society where the average American spends 80-90 percent of his or her time indoors, and obesity is an epidemic.
While no state policy requires physical activity outside of PE, and SFPS doesn’t have a recess policy, NMPED recommends guidelines for physical activity. It suggests NM schools:
• provide daily recess for all students;
• prohibit withholding physical activity (PE, recess, etc.) as punishment;
• incorporate physical activity into the academic curriculum (e.g., brain breaks);
• provide physical activity opportunities before and after school;
• encourage walking, biking and skating to/from school; and
• encourage the use of school facilities beyond school hours.
Theo’s school follows these recommendations. Its PTK funds yoga for first-graders and other movement programs for other grades, and kids play outside before and after school. Theo’s teacher is very attuned to bringing movement into her classroom and allows for two recesses even on half-day Fridays. I feel good about this, and I still think it’s insufficient—for my kids and others.
Recess time is most often curtailed for low-income, minority-status children and schools. Since most American kids get most of their daily 60 minutes of recommended physical activity at school, the links between physical activity and academic achievement, and the social-emotional benefits of unstructured play, have another dimension. There is a demographic of recess that isn’t equitable across class lines. Even if my kid gets a relatively decent SFPS recess, what kids get in other schools in our community is relevant.
Theo’s teacher discourages using the word “can’t”—a reminder we often give children. When therapist Hanscom recommended a daily, hour-long recess to a client’s team of teachers, principal and counselor, the team laughed. Teachers said their hands were tied, though they agreed longer recesses would help all their students. Hanscom’s takeaway was, “Saying ‘our hands are tied’ is just about as bad as a child saying, ‘I can’t.’”
This may be easy to say but harder to do when you’re charged with governing a class, a grade, a school or a district. Hierarchies, politics, mandates and logistics too often precede issues of educational consequence. I get stressed managing Theo’s first-grade homework; it’s hard to imagine the pressures his teachers and administrators have to balance. They need recess, too!
Maybe that’s a start. A recent New York Times op-ed began with Friedrich Nietzsche’s “play is the highest form of human activity.” The more I consider what I deem meaningful in my family’s life, the wiser I find this Nietzschean sound bite.
With all our valid concerns for academics and accountability, we should acknowledge the role of free play for our schools, our kids and our balance-seeking selves. It’s us—parents and school leaders—whom our kids watch most often. What might they learn from our advocacy of recess as integral to their education? Or from our attempts to balance work, play and learning in our own days?
As a coda to Nietszche, then, I’m taking a page from a Shel Silverstein poem: “G’bye, I’m going out to play!”