Say yes to recess

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, March/April, 2014.

I, like most of the boys in my class, spent most of our school day waiting for recess. The last five to ten minutes of the class preceding recess and lunch were a waste as we fiddled with our shoes, changing from our Catholic school uniform topsiders or loafers into sneakers.

When we went to lunch or recess, we spent almost the entire time playing. At recess, we picked teams as quickly as possible while scarfing down an apple; at lunch, we picked teams while finishing our sandwiches in the cafeteria. Once we started to play, we played until the bell rang, and often until the threat of detention brought us indoors.

In P.E. class, we sat in straight lines as our P.E. teacher talked to us, took roll, made us stretch, and explained the game. Inevitably, just as we started to enjoy the game, the class ended. Our youth sports practices were more like P.E. than recess. Our coaches spent good portions of the practice talking, and we stood and listened.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2008) recommended that children participate in 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) daily. A study by Springer et al. (2013) found that 3rd grade students spent 66% of their recess time in MVPA and 19% in vigorous physical activity (VPA). As an example, Leek et al. (2011) found that children involved in organized team sports spent 46.1% of their time in MVPA and 15.1% in VPA. Based on these studies, the unstructured nature of recess increased the percentage of time spent in MVPA and VPA compared to team sports.

Recess, therefore, could have a greater effect on children reaching the recommended guideline of 60 minutes per day of MVPA, provided that children are afforded more recess time. Unfortunately, the opposite appears to happen, as recess time is slashed to increase classroom time. A five-year study in Australia found that physical activity during recess and lunchtime in 5-6 and 10-12 year olds has decreased (Ridgers et al., 2012). Nettefold et al. (2011) found that only a small fraction of students met the recommended physical-activity guidelines during the school day, even when physical education classes were included.

Throughout elementary school, we played touch football, soccer, basketball, baseball, and kickball at recess. We argued, we fought, we talked trash, we played, we learned, and we had fun. For a couple weeks when I was in 4th grade, I played a game called A Team/B Team with the 5th graders from my recreational soccer team. The game had simple rules: pick someone from the opposite team, and wrestle him to the ground. Nobody was injured, and nobody left recess trying to prolong the fight or with hard feelings, but eventually, the recess monitors made us stop.

A school outside Auckland, New Zealand used to have similar fears about children wrestling and fighting and engaging in other unsafe behaviors. Recently, as part of an academic study, the school threw away the rulebook and gave the students the freedom to have recess on their own terms. Anarchy! Students now climb trees, skateboard, and play bullrush, a game very similar to our A Team/B Team. According to a local news report (OneNews, TVNZ) and interview with the principal, the absence of recess rules has led to a drop in bullying and serious injuries, and concentration in class has increased. The absence of external discipline has led to an increase in self-discipline and self-control.

The improvement in classroom concentration is not to be taken lightly in our age of increasing ADHD diagnoses and decreasing academic performance. The anecdotal evidence is supported by a growing body of research literature and championed by psychologists, public health experts, and medical doctors.

During his presentation at TEDx Manhattan Beach, Dr. John Ratey, MD, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, said, “Physical exercise is really for our brains. Physical exercise turns our brains on.” Dr. Ratey’s presentation highlighted the Naperville, IL School District, which provided 45 minutes of physical education per day to all of its students. Dr. Ratey was impressed that only 3% of students in the school district were overweight or obese compared to 33% of high-school freshmen in California at the time. More important to Dr. Ratey, however, was the performance on the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics/Science) test. The Naperville School District scored #1 in science and #6 in math internationally.

Whereas correlation does not equal causation, Dr. Ratey saw the positive link between daily physical education and academic performance, and the body of literature in support of physical activity’s positive effect on academic performance, through means such as improved concentration, has been growing steadily in recent years. A study by Lambourne et al. (2013) found that physical activity had a positive influence on math performance. A review of literature by Singh et al. (2012) found a positive association between physical activity and academic performance in children. A review by Rasberry et al. (2011) found 50.5% of reviewed studies to show a positive association between school-based physical activity and academic performance, 48% found no association, and only 1.5% found a negative relationship. Hillman et al. (2011) found that chronic and acute physical activity influenced brain health and cognition in children.

Motor-skill development, a potential outcome from physical activity, also has been linked to academic achievement. Morales et al. (2011) showed that enhanced motor skills were associated with better academic performance in children 9-16 years old. In a study of children in Finland, considered to have the world’s best school system, Haapala et al. (2013) found that 1st – 3rd graders with lower motor skill proficiency performed worse in academic subjects.

Beyond health and academic performance, a January 2014 Washington Post article highlighted the importance of recess on social behaviors. Nancy Barrand, a senior adviser for program development at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said, “It’s helping kids learn how to socialize, how to take turns, how to be able to wait, how to be able to compete without killing each other. It’s all the things that one learns from play. Sometimes it’s easier to learn those things from play than from reading a rule book and being told what to do.”

Traditionally in academic circles, recess has been a throw away, an opportunity to give teachers a coffee break, or a way for a teacher to waste time during the day. When a teacher needs more time for students or another subject, the teacher uses recess time or cancels P.E. Recess is frivolous, an extra, something easily replaced or improved upon.

Are these traditional views correct? In a policy statement in January 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote: “The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.”

Furthermore, during his TEDx presentation, neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert said, “We have a brain for one reason and one reason only: to produce adaptive and complex movement.”

Because physical activity is vital for our health, and it has positive associations with academic performance, we need to re-visit our assumptions about recess as a throw-away activity, and view it as an important part, potentially THE most important part, of a child’s day. We need to nurture and expand these recess opportunities, and potentially learn from the school in Auckland and relax the rules. Of course the threat of a lawsuit looms large in the U.S., but is a lawsuit worse than the potential of a nation of unhealthy, underperforming children?

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League


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