Supporting recess and healthy students

As teachers have been put under increased pressure to “teach to the test” and boost their students’ performance scores, curricula have been grossly condensed. Depth of knowledge is sacrificed for cursory breadth of knowledge, and in lieu of spending additional time on a given subject to foster discussions, encourage creative applications of material, and/or ensure students’ complete understanding of a given topic at hand, teachers are encouraged to merrily prod their students onwards so they can tackle the next lesson plan on their agenda. In the rush to check off boxes and plow through objectives as hastily as possible, it is not only quality time in the classroom that suffers, but also quality time outside the classroom.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we are talking about recess here, a beloved institution which could be facing a perilous situation.  True, as NPR reported, nine out of ten schools regularly schedule recess for their students. Still, that means that ten percent of schools do not have regularly-scheduled recess for their students.  Moreover, the Center for Public Education states that since 2007, twenty percent of school districts have cut the amount of recess time in the school week, and according to Albert Einstein School of Medicine at Yeshiva University, since the 1970s, 12 hours of weekly free time has been removed from students’ schedules, which also comprises a 25% reduction in play and 75% reduction in unstructured outdoor activities. Some researchers and educators point to the No Child Left Behind act as an exacerbating factor behind these disappearing recess hours, as the legislation greatly emphasizes students’ scores on standardized tests as a (sole) measure for teachers’ success.  When faced with pressure to maximize classroom hours and drill test material into students’ malleable minds, many educators have resorted to shaving back precious time on the blacktop as a seemingly simple solution to the problem. But what exactly is getting accomplished here?

It is important to understand that recess is more than just child’s play, literally and figuratively.  According to practitioners affiliated with the Eat Smart Move More Weigh Less program in North Carolina, children need at least sixty minutes of physical activity per day which should be a mix of aerobic activities (e.g. running around), muscle-strengthening activities (e.g. tug of war, playing on playground equipment), and bone-strengthening activities (e.g. playing hop scotch or basketball). The American Academy of Pediatrics states that besides developing children’s kinesthetic awareness and promoting physical activity, recess represents an “essential planned respite from rigorous cognitive tasks” by affording times to “rest, play, imagine, think, move, and socialize.” It would seem, then, that recess is just as valuable a fixture to the daily school schedule as reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Even for those who will never be picked first for kickball and who immerse themselves in books rather than in group games, recess presents a chance to let daydreams run free and defy regimentation and expectations.  I, for one, never mastered the science of dribbling a basketball, but recess did let me morph from a bored six year old into a budding, world-class detective but for a healthy twenty minutes.  Much to the chagrin of my first grade self, the clues I collected – bottle caps, chunks of cement, and twigs that had an uncanny resemblance to letters in the alphabet – never solved the mystery of who wrote that note in the bathroom or what was wrong with our janitor’s eye.  My twenty-something self is still baffled by those enigmas, but that’s almost beside the point. Anachronistically speaking, what was supremely important about recess to me were the unfettered opportunities it gave to 1) explore and interpret my surroundings in my own terms and 2) project my imagination on to reality.  For a kid who was often bored in class and who was more taciturn than his peers, these twenty minutes were truly transformative and, well, validating.

Recess certainly helps children learn to move, to socialize, and to fight dragons; while its value in allowing kids to transform into superheroes is indubitable, perhaps its most important function is to safeguard kids against anything that could possibly encroach on their being kids. According to a 2009 study on school recess and group classroom behavior, children whose schools do not provide them recess generally come from urban families where parents have not completed college and are considered low-income earners. Dr. Romina Barrios, one of the authors of the study, points out that ironically enough, children who lack recess at school are often the very children who need recess the most. “We know that many disadvantaged children are not free to roam their own neighborhoods, even their own yards, unless they are with an adult,” she states, denoting a correlation between low-income and high-crime neighborhoods. “Recess may be the only opportunity for these kids to practice their social skills with other children.”

Supervised recess at school, then, is a safe haven from the unsavory outside world where children can retain their innocence and their identity.  Curtailing the amount of time wherein children can freely exercise their bodies and their minds without external pressures or threats looming about them deprives them of a crucial part of their development. The physical, psychological, and social workings of a young student are no less important than academic knowledge and reasoning abilities.  They constitute an equal share of his or her holistic being. If standardized tests fail to capture them, surely this does not mean they should still be pushed to the margins? Hopefully the answer to this question is as apparent to the majority of school administrators as it is to me.


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