Recess in School

by drnieman on January 3, 2013

in News

The role of regular recess times in elementary schools is crucial for optimal development. At this age, a child needs to play and have regular time to shift focus, relax, move and socialize.

In Japan, primary school-aged children have a 10 to 15 minute break every hour. This reflects the fact that attention spans begin to wane after 40 to 50 minutes of intense instruction. Internationally, the United Nations consider playtime for children a human rights issue.

Recess times are intended for children to play, rest, use their imagination–away from electronics– move more, and socialize. It should not be confused with physical education classes, but seen as a complement to the formal physical education curriculum.

The benefits of recess include better physical health, emotional well-being and improved social skills. Unstructured play at this age is important and with the shift to more and more technology at a younger age and striving for top marks in every test, some would argue that limiting recess time has contributed to more obesity, increased stress and possibly unrealistic expectations regarding attention spans.

In January 2013 the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), through their council on school health, released a policy statement on the crucial role of recess in school. This report is available online at http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/131/1/183.full.html

The AAP felt the need to do that because in North America, increasingly, there is a debate over the role of schools in promoting optimal development of the whole child at a time when teachers are stressed to do more with less while funding is cut consistently.

Some schools have argued that their primary role is to teach academics and that it is the parent’s role to teach about exercise and nutrition. The AAP laments the growing trend toward reallocating time in schools to accentuate academics at the cost of reducing recess time. The Academy also discourages the withdrawal of recess time for punitive or behavioral issues.

Research shows that when children are allowed regular recess times, they concentrate longer, are more able to shift from one cognitive task to another, are less easily distracted, become more productive and behave more appropriately in class (see www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED466331)

Children who are allowed regular recess time also learn better to negotiate, cooperate, share, problem solve and persevere. These social and emotional benefits augment their cognitive development according to a study conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (Available at www.rwjf.org/files/research/sports4kidsrecessreport.pdf0

In addition, there are physical benefits which potentially can lower the risk of obesity and increase motor skills. While play during recess time may pose some risks if done rigorously and without adult supervision, it should not be used by schools as an excuse to eliminate recess opportunities.

Several studies demonstrated that it does not matter if recess is performed indoors or outdoors—in either setting children were more attentive and productive in the classroom following the recess.

The ideal timing of recess remains inconsistent. It varies by school and age and sometimes by building. Research has shown that when students have recess before lunch, more time is taken for lunch and less food is wasted. School staff also noted an improvement in student behavior at meal time. This improved behavior carried over into the classroom in the afternoon. More and more schools are following the advice of scheduling recess before lunch as part of the school’s wellness policy.

In North America the duration of recess varies widely from 20 to 60 minutes per day. The Japanese example of having a break  of 10 to 15 minutes every hour seems to ideally fit a child’s ability to sustain  his or her concentration more appropriately (At the age of elementary school, few children can concentrate for more than 50 minutes when subjected to intense instruction)

One can also argue that if more schools in Canada had school nurses, the quality of supervised recess time will be improved and thus augment the cognitive and social benefits associated with regular recess times in schools.  Currently the Canadian Pediatric Society, known for its passion to advocate on behalf of children, does not have a formal Section on School Health.

For more information on how children benefit from play, see a Stanford University report at www.playeveryday.org/Stanford%20Report.pdf

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