Over the last 20 years, due primarily to the enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2002 and the adoption of 2010's Common Core State Standards, test scores have become increasingly more important for schools in the United States. Sadly, uninterrupted and unstructured playtime in the form of recess has simultaneously become increasingly more rare.
A 2017 Time article cites a 2007 survey by the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University that found 20 percent of school districts had reduced recess time. A more recent 2016 Shape of the Nation report found that just 16 percent of states require elementary schools to provide daily recess.
But this is slowly reversing as health and education experts and concerned parents advocate for a return to the very valuable daily recess time. A 2017 state law guaranteed elementary school students in Florida 20 minutes of recess each day, and in 2016, Rhode Island passed a similar law.
Replacing much-needed recess time with more in-class instruction in hopes of improving standardized test scores takes a huge toll on America's youth. Childhood development experts concur that recess is critical for helping kids develop the cognitive, physical and social skills which are requirements for academic success, good health, emotional resilience and social adjustment.
Cognitive and emotional benefits of recess
Unstructured playtime in the form of daily recess actually helps children perform better in the classroom. Researchers say young learners are capable of absorbing and accomplishing far more in considerably less time when given properly timed breaks.
“Children need to have downtime between complex cognitive challenges,” according to Dr. Robert Murray, a pediatrician and professor of human nutrition at Ohio State University. Taking breaks between information-heavy tasks helps kids process the information more fully and return to class less fidgety and enthused about learning. Well-exercised kids are also less prone to behavioral acting out in class.
Physical skill development at play
While kids are building stronger brains at play, they’re also strengthening their gross- and fine-motor skills, improving balance and developing eye-hand coordination. They’re also lowering the risk that they’ll mature into obese adults with numerous weight-related health problems.
With the national childhood obesity rate at 18.5 percent, more than 12 million U.S. children are at increased risk of developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, bone and joint problems, and chronic health conditions such as asthma and type 2 diabetes. The reduction in recess time and resulting decrease in physical activity is a key factor in explaining why the United States has significant numbers of overweight and obese children.
Social skills sharpening during playtime
Cooperative play with other children helps kids practice conflict resolution, problem-solving, decision-making and communication skills such as listening and negotiating. Unstructured playtime lets children explore teamwork, competition and rule formulation — developmental building blocks that help them grow into confident and contributing members of society.
The Urban Child Institute notes that adults who were allowed adequate playtime in childhood are:
- More knowledgeable about the world
- More flexible in their thinking
- Better able to adapt and navigate through complex environments
- More trusting and cooperative than children denied playtime
Recess is not PE
It’s important to differentiate between unstructured, uninterrupted play at recess and physical-education classes. Although gym period does encourage physical activity, it’s still considered instructional time. There’s a specific set of learning goals that does not exist when kids are out on the playground equipment enjoying the unorganized and very valuable downtime of recess.
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