Four times in the past month, I’ve heard from parents or teachers who are upset by school policies that allow teachers or administrators to withhold recess as a form of punishment. The children’s infractions range from tardiness to failure to complete homework to acting out in class – which covers a wide range of behaviors and ensures any number of children will go without recess on any given day.
The research, however, is clear: Children need recess, the benefits of which range across developmental domains. Following are just seven reasons why, if we want children to achieve optimal intellectual, social/emotional, and physical success, they should not be denied recess.
1. Everyone benefits from a break. As far back as 1885 and 1901 the research is quite clear on this: Both children and adults learn better and more quickly when their efforts are distributed (breaks are included) than when concentrated (work is conducted in longer periods). More recently, the novelty-arousal theory has suggested that people function better when they have a change of pace. Because young children don’t process most information as effectively as older children (due to the immaturity of their nervous systems and their lack of experience), they can especially benefit from breaks.
2. Recess increases on-task time. Dr. Olga Jarrett and her colleagues approached an urban school district with a policy against recess. They received permission for two fourth-grade classes to have recess once a week so they could determine the impact on the children’s behavior on recess and non-recess days. The result was that the 43 children became more on-task and less fidgety on days when they had recess. Sixty percent of the children, including the five suffering from attention deficit disorder, worked more and/or fidgeted less on recess days. Dr. Jarrett’s research demonstrated that a 15-minute recess resulted in the children’s being 5 percent more on-task and 9 percent less fidgety, which translated into 20 minutes saved during the day.
3. Children need outside light. The outside light stimulates the pineal gland, which is the part of the brain that helps regulate our biological clock, is vital to the immune system, and simply makes us feel better. Outside light triggers the synthesis of vitamin D. And a number of studies have demonstrated that it increases academic learning and productivity.
4. Unstructured physical play reduces stress. The National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends unstructured physical play as a developmentally appropriate means of reducing stress in children’s lives – and studies show that stress has a negative impact on learning as well as on health. For many children, especially those who are hyperactive or potentially so, recess is an opportunity to blow off steam. Outdoors, children can engage in behaviors (loud, messy, and boisterous) considered unacceptable and annoying indoors. And because recess is a break from structure and expectations, children have an opportunity to take control of their world, which is a rarity in their lives.
5. Children need to learn to be social creatures. Recess may be the only time during the day when children have an opportunity to experience socialization and real communication. Neighborhoods are not what they used to be, so once the school day ends, there may be little chance for social interaction. And, of course, while in school children are generally not allowed to interact during class, while lining up, or when moving from one area of the school to another. Some school policies even prevent children from talking to one another during lunch. How can children with so few opportunities to socialize and communicate be expected to live and work together in harmony as adults? When and where will they have learned how?
6. Our children’s health is at risk. We’re all aware that many of our children are suffering from overweight and obesity, but even children who have no weight issues require physical activity to sustain optimal health. The outdoors is the best place for children to practice emerging physical skills, to experience the pure joy of movement, and to burn the most calories. Research has even shown that children who are physically active in school are more likely to be physically active at home. Moreover, children who don’t have the opportunity to be active during the school day don’t usually compensate during after-school hours.
7. Physical activity feeds the brain. Thanks to advances in brain research, we now know that most of the brain is activated during physical activity – much more so than when doing seatwork. Movement increases the capacity of blood vessels (and possibly even their number), allowing for the delivery of oxygen, water, and glucose (“brain food”) to the brain. This optimizes the brain’s performance! Furthermore, numerous studies have shown that students who are physically active have improved academic performance, achieve higher test scores, and demonstrate a better attitude toward school.
There is one more reason why recess should not be withheld from children as punishment: It doesn’t work. Experimental studies and anecdotal evidence indicate that the same children tend to miss all or part of recess every day, which means that the threat of missing recess is ineffective. And, as Eric Jensen, author of several books on brain-based learning, tells us, “sitting for more than 10 minutes at a stretch reduces our awareness of physical and emotional sensations and increases fatigue,” the result of which is reduced concentration and discipline problems. The rationale for demanding children sit more, therefore, is counterintuitive both to what the research shows and to what we know about children.
Rae Pica is a children’s physical activity specialist and the author of A Running Start: How Play, Physical Activity, and Free Time Create a Successful Child. You can visit her at www.movingandlearning.com and hear her interviews with experts in the fields of early childhood education, motor development, the neurosciences, and more at www.bodymindandchild.com.