New study shows importance of recess for schoolchildren
On a frigid day with temperatures in the teens, a group of spirited kids spend their recess running around a gym shooting baskets, even scoring a few three-pointers.
Joseph Anania, 8, stops to take a breath, and explains why recess is his favorite part of the day at Shady Side Academy Junior School in Point Breeze.
“Because I get to run around with my friends and play,” says Joseph, a third-grader from Fox Chapel. “I wish we had recess all day.”
Whitney McVeagh — who likes to play games like Four Square and Knockout and ride the swings — enthusiastically agrees.
“I like that you’re able … to spend time with your friends and do anything you want,” says Whitney, 10, a fourth-grader from Point Breeze. “At some point, you need to get out your energy.”
The kids are on to something, experts say.
Recess — rather than being just idle, goof-off time on the monkey bars — benefits children’s minds and bodies. Withholding recess can stunt healthy development, according to a recent policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Dr. Robert Murray, a pediatrician who was a lead author on the statement, says that safe and supervised recess — which, he says, about 73 percent of elementary schools provide regularly — offers children physical, emotional, social and cognitive benefits, such as improved classroom behavior, a better attention span and interaction and bonding with other kids.
Murray’s examination of decades-long studies for the Academy supports recess for many reasons, including physical fitness, which is important when childhood obesity is so common, he says. Recess, he says, helps a child’s cognitive process in the same way, for instance, as a coffee break for adults: It breaks concentration from work, releases restlessness and allows someone to return to work with a refreshed mind.
Kids at recess learn skills in collaboration, Murray says, as they play rules-based games with other kids.
“This is very mindful play time, and it’s very constructive,” a Murray, a former professor of pediatrics at Ohio State University in Columbus, where he now works in the school’s department of human nutrition. “This is part of what makes the child into a functioning adult: It’s the opportunity to work with other kids and learn to get along. That is as important of a lesson that you learn at school as math and reading are.”
Recess provides many of the happy childhood school memories that last a lifetime, Murray says.
Whitney’s mother says that her daughter and friends “absolutely” benefit from recess.
“Kids that age … they need to be physical and active and run around,” says Sue Whitney, 48. (Her daughter has her husband’s last name.) “They need to learn how to get along with others and how to include (kids) in games.”
Unfortunately, many school districts today — up to 40 percent, according to research that Murray cites — are reducing or even eliminating recess time to allow more time for core academics, he says.
But schools contacted in the greater Pittsburgh area expressed support for regular recess and reported no decrease in time allotted for recess.
At Grandview Upper Elementary School, which houses grades three to five in the Highlands School District, the kids get one 15-minute recess per day in the playground, right after a 30-minute lunch. When temperatures are frigid or if the weather is otherwise foul, students take their recess break in in the auditorium. There, on bad-weather days, the kids might watch a Disney movie, chat with friends, draw or read, says Heather Hauser, principal of the Tarentum school.
Hauser says some teachers offer quick in-classroom breaks by leading the kids in cross-stretching exercises, like touching the left toe with the right hand.
“Any release of energy is good … even as an adult,” she says. The Grandview kids get “45 minutes where their brains are not academically driven.”
Natalie McCracken, acting assistant superintendent of elementary education for the Norwin School District, agrees with the practice.
“Overall, we support recess, and we believe in the importance of recess,” McCracken says. “Everything that we’ve looked into says the same thing that the American Academy of Pediatrics says. … We try to include all aspects of child development.”
Norwin elementary schools schedule 15 minutes of recess daily for kids in kindergarten through fourth-grade. Kids in fifth- and sixth grade get recess a few times a week, but more physical education time.
At the Bethel Park School District, grades one to four have one recess per day during a 45-minute lunch period, which is split into 22 minutes for lunch and 23 minutes for recess, district officials say. On bad-weather days, kids have indoor recess activities, including using exercise equipment and playing classroom games with Wii Sports.
“The elementary team is absolutely on board with the need for children in the K-4 grade range to have a recess break during the day,” says Dorothy Stark, principal at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School, and Bethel Park district’s director of elementary education.
At Shady Side Academy Junior School, which houses pre-K through fifth-grade students, kids get recess every day for 20 minutes, just before lunch, outside. The younger kids, up to first-grade, get at least two breaks a day, and second-graders get a bonus recess on Thursday. On days when the weather is too bad, the kids play indoors in the gym.
Karen DiFiore, the school’s physical education teacher and supervisor for recess, says that the kids benefit greatly from recess.
“They learn so much out on the playground during free play time,” she says. “I do think it makes a difference even in their cognitive ability. It makes them more awake and alert when they come back into classes.”
Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7824.