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How To Improve Educational Performance? Bring Back Recess

Tight school budgets have resulted in the cutting of playtime across the country, but new studies show that one of the best ways to get bang for your educational buck is to let kids play more, and then watch their academic achievement go way up.

School districts across the country are finding more reasons to curtail recess. As testing requirements and budget cuts take hold, about 40% of US elementary schools have reduced or eliminated recess, mostly to make room for more academics, reports USA Today. While about two-thirds of elementary schools still provide regular recess for students, according to The Christ College of Nursing and Health Sciences in Cincinnati, one in four elementary schools no longer give it to all grades, and 77% say they have eliminated recess as a punishment.

But that may be exactly the opposite of what is needed. In the American Academy of Pediatrics’ first policy statement on the issue—The Crucial Role of Recess in School—the group of doctors has come out swinging for recess. "We have a couple of decades of research now that indicates that recess plays a huge role in a child’s life, and not just because it’s fun," says Robert Murray, a professor of pediatrics at Ohio State University, in the group’s statement. The cognitive, physical, emotional and social benefits are clear.

This research on how recess helps students’ bodies and minds is leading some groups to rethink its role in academic improvement. Playworks, a national nonprofit based in Oakland, is fighting for recess in low-income urban schools where many would not have other safe outdoor places to play.

Recess and play, says Jill Vialet, the CEO and founder of Playworks, "should be baked into the structure of the school day with well-trained, caring adults maximizing that time in the day to ensure kids had the opportunity to have fun and be physically active while learning inclusion, conflict-resolution, empathy, teamwork and leadership." It sends trained full time staff members to low-income schools who help turn recess from a free-for-all into something that will cut down on bullying, improve conflict resolution and let students learn more in the classroom. A study of Playworks in the Journal of School Health found students enrolled in the program for a year exhibited more meaningful participation, problem-solving skills, and increased physical activity.

Playworks is now in 480 schools in 22 cities, reaching nearly 350,000 students. The groups says 100 percent of teachers in its schools have requested the program return the following year. By 2015, their goal is to serve more than 1 million kids. That still leaves plenty more to go. "There are 60,000 public elementary schools in this country and we’re reaching about 1% today," said Vialet by email. "Our model, with both its direct service approach and our broad adoption strategy through training, represents a legitimate contender in the pursuit of scale."

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  • Rebecka R.

    Wow, I can barely concentrate in college for more than a few hours. How can we expect kids to spend 8 hours in a classroom setting without a good amount of time set aside for them to clear their minds and just play. Children need playtime to develop motor skills and just get some fresh air and exercise. Weren't these so called "educators" ever children?

  • Mitzi

    I work in an elementary school and the problem is not the educators.  The problem is that the core standards dictate that the children meet certain benchmarks that are incredibly high, especially for struggling students.  In order to reach these benchmarks that are now more than ever taken from test scores, teachers have no choice but to squeeze in every last drop of instructional time that they can which means that recess is cut.  Trust me, there is nothing worse for these teachers than trying to instruct a classroom of 25 students who can't sit still in their seats.  There has to be a balance but it is out of the teachers hands.  The benchmarks are handed down by the higher ups.  The teachers are just doing their best to help the kids reach them. It's a sad state of affairs! BTW, I am not a teacher.  I am a teaching assistant.

  • Monica Hahn

    There is a growing body of evidence that physical activity breaks improve cognitive processing, in kids as well as adults. Eliminating recess to focus on academics is folly.