If you were to compile a list of school subjects that help give children focus, you might initially consider math, reading, or writing — scholastic pursuits that need a lot of brainpower. Recess is just the fun break that happens a few times a day to let kids burn off some energy, right? Wrong — in fact, recess has been shown to help improve focus and attention in children, and not only because they’ve got some time outdoors to play and socialize. Furthermore, taking time for a movement activity or recess is no longer called a “break” because it isn’t a break from learning it enhances/ contributes to learning! Allowing young students to take breaks throughout the day lets them tackle their subjects with renewed vigor and comprehension, and it can also curb behavioral problems once they’re back in class. This just makes it even more vital to keep recess in the curriculum, especially at a time when some schools are phasing it out altogether.
For those teachers who are fighting to keep recess in place, it’s good to know that research is on your side. Let’s examine how recess can do a world of good to help children focus in school, and how both performance and behavior may suffer if there isn’t sufficient time for play along with learning.
The Curriculum of Play
It’s the rare kid who prefers being in class to running around outside for recess. Poll any number of young children on what their favorite school subject is, and there’s bound to be a few who say “recess.” This isn’t an answer that’s taken too seriously, since recess often isn’t considered a vital part of the curriculum. However, we’d be smart to take the hint from our kids — they understand that playtime is just as important as any school subject.
Recess has been getting a bad reputation lately. According to US News, one in four elementary schools has done away with daily recess for all grades — pushed out in favor of more time for standardized testing. There’s also the misconception that kids will remain rowdy and out of control once they come in from recess, and that they’ll continue to be disruptive throughout class. (It’s common that the majority of misbehavior happens during recess, but that doesn’t always translate into the classroom afterward.) Yet the idea that kids are at school to learn and not to play is a dangerous one, because play itself is a form of learning that can’t be replicated in the classroom.
In an article for NPR, Ohio State University pediatrician Bob Murray is quoted as saying, “If you want a child to be attentive and stay on task, and also if you want them to encode the information you’re giving them in their memory, you’ve got to give them regular breaks.” He goes on to note that his research has found that “kids learn better after a break for physical activity and unstructured play” – essentially, recess helps their brains retain learning and refocus on what comes next.
One study was completed at a school district that had a no-recess policy. The researchers observed two fourth-grade classes that were allowed to have recess once a week, in order to observe the difference in behavior on days when the kids had recess versus the days they didn’t. The study’s results showed that the children “became more on-task and less fidgety” during class on the days with recess, plus 60% of the students (including five with attention deficit disorder) worked more. This just goes to show that the idea that kids will stay hyperactive even after recess isn’t exactly true; in fact, chances are they’ll be better at focusing on the tasks at hand.
The Benefits of Recess
Outside observers may simply think of recess as a chance for kids to run around and get some fresh air, but if you work in the education system, then you’ve likely seen firsthand how important it is for kids to have recess. For young children especially, the brain hasn’t quite developed to the point where it can retain long stretches of learning and information, and so taking breaks can help get them back on track.
Recess also reduces stress, which means that children are better prepared mentally to focus on learning. “For many children, especially those considered ‘hyperactive,’ recess is an opportunity to expend energy in a healthy, suitable manner. Outside, children can engage in behavior — loud, messy and boisterous — considered unacceptable 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.” As wild and excitable as kids may be on the playground, it’s actually a good release that can help them get their energy out before they head back to class. The fact that it’s also a chance to socialize and be creative is an extra bonus.
It’s that sense of socialization as well that can be considered an important part of learning. There’s the fact that times have changed when it comes to children connecting; now that screen time is taking away from play time — not to mention the rise of “helicopter parenting” that prevents many kids from playing with others in the neighborhood — there are fewer chances for children to engage with one another. Being able to creatively connect with peers is an important part of development. And when it comes to recess in particular, creating clear lines between “play time” and “school time” can help children develop a sense of when it’s time to play versus when it’s time to concentrate on a task.
Finally, the physical activity of recess might even be good for academic performance. Studies have shown that children who get daily movement through recess both achieve higher test scores and have a better attitude towards going to school. Removing recess could very well negatively impact their learning experience, as well as take away one of their favorite reasons to attend.
Better Learning through Breaks
The fact that many elementary schools have been removing recess may end up having an adverse effect on young students. It me be true that more time needs to be put towards studying for standardized testing, but phasing out a child’s outlet for creative play could hurt them in the long run. Not only does recess serve as an energy release and a chance to socialize, but it also helps improve the brain and allow for better information retention. Although it’s important for kids to learn and make the most out of their education experience, they also need the chance to take a break to have some fun. It could make all the difference when it comes to focusing on their work.
Do you agree that kids should have more (or less) recesses?
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