Memphis Commercial Appeal
By Ben Dyson and Lisa Dyson
Childhood obesity rates in the United States have skyrocketed in the past 20 years and are now at epidemic levels. Tennessee ranks third in the nation for childhood obesity and has one of the highest rates of pediatric Type II diabetes and heart disease. Memphis has been nationally recognized as one of the “fattest” and most unhealthy cities in America.
At the same time, many public schools throughout the country are eliminating recess in elementary schools, saying that it is a waste of time better spent on improving academic performance. Unfortunately, schools in Memphis and Shelby County often follow this national trend by failing to schedule recess, and those that do hold recess allocate only 15 to 20 minutes per day.
Eliminating or reducing school recess is a mistake. School recess is often the only time during the week that today’s over-scheduled children are able to engage in unstructured play. Recess holds many physical, social and even academic benefits for children.
Physical activity is essential for healthy growth and development. Research has overwhelmingly found recess benefits the health of elementary school-age children through increased aerobic endurance, muscular strength and coordination, and control of excess weight gain and its related health problems. Through play children learn about their bodies’ capabilities and how to control themselves in their environment. Recess gives children an outlet for their natural urge for vigorous physical play.
Recess also responds to the child’s social and emotional needs. When children play freely with peers, they develop interpersonal skills that lead to cooperating, helping, sharing and problem solving. Games on the playground encourage children to take turns, negotiate, make their own rules and interact cooperatively. Students learn how to build relationships, resolve and avoid conflicts, and see others’ points of view. For many children the opportunity to play with friends is a positive reason to come to school. Recess also provides an opportunity for classroom teachers to observe their students’ social interactions.
The main reason recess has been reduced is that teachers and administrators believe that all available time at school needs to be devoted to learning academic subjects. But, perhaps surprisingly, recess also contributes to the child’s cognitive and intellectual needs. After exercise, students feel less fidgety and tense, and more invigorated and ready to learn. Taking a break from structured learning activities helps humans learn better. Unstructured play also gives the opportunity to have fun and explore new things, which leads to creativity.
In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that exercise makes kids smarter. Studies show that recess boosts learning and test scores. Physical exercise, including recess, actually enhances brain function. The California Department of Education found that the fittest students in the state scored best on academic tests. Students who spend more of their school day engaging in physical activity (recess and physical education class) perform better academically than those who spend more time in instruction.
Longer recess periods in other developed nations around the world further demonstrate this point. For example, we spent six months in New Zealand last year and our children attended elementary school there. Schools there had nearly 60 minutes per day of outdoor recess, despite the fact that their school day was slighter shorter than ours. This does not hinder the academic performance of New Zealand students, who enjoy the highest literacy rate in the world.
In some Memphis-area schools that do schedule recess, teachers and administrators reduce or cancel recess as a punishment for inappropriate behavior or poor academic performance. This practice is educationally unsound. The students who are being punished for poor academics or personal behavior are perhaps the students who most need recess for their social, emotional, intellectual and physical growth.
Recess has too many benefits to be considered an optional activity. Parents should insist that recess is scheduled and held every day and should lobby for more time to be devoted to recess.
Recess is the least expensive, easiest and most effective way for Tennessee schools to conform to the state law that requires 90 minutes of physical activity per week for children in elementary school.
Daily outdoor recess is the only opportunity for students to refresh their brains, exercise their hearts and muscles, choose their own activities, make friends, work out problems and have fun. Children need recess every day.