WASHINGTON — Remember recess? Making up games, soaring on swings and conquering the monkey bars?
For years, many schools have been cutting back on recess as they try to squeeze more instruction time out of the day. Now everyone from health experts to Ranger Rick argues that it’s important to bring it back.
An abundance of research supports the logic that kids’ health, social skills and brainpower all benefit from time to play outside — every day.
But millions of kids aren’t getting the recommended 20 minutes of burn-off-some-steam time every day, surveys show, let alone the 60 minutes of daily physical activity that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say children and adolescents need.
Lack of recess means even less time outdoors for kids who already spend a lot of indoor time huddled with electronic media.
“Even if it’s an asphalt or concrete surface that kids are out playing on, they are outside,” said Allen Cooper, the director of state and local education advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation. “They’re able to feel the wind and see the sky and birds, and hear them sing.”
Cooper heads a national effort to help parents organize locally to push for more recess for their children. The campaign is called Ranger Rick Restores Recess, after the raccoon leader of the group of animal friends whose adventures have long been a staple of the federation’s Ranger Rick magazine.
Some 30 percent of American children weren’t getting at least 20 minutes of daily recess in a nationally representative survey that the University of Illinois at Chicago conducted from 2006 to 2009. A federal survey in 2006 found that 21 percent of schools didn’t provide daily recess at all.
Most states don’t impose requirements, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education.
Missouri requires 20 minutes of recess daily in elementary school. In North Carolina, at least 30 minutes of daily physical activity in kindergarten through eighth grade is compulsory. School board policy in Florida’s Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation’s fourth largest district, stipulates that children through grade five get 15 minutes of recess three times a week, or 20 minutes twice a week.
The American Academy of Pediatrics is concerned, as well. Based on its research, the group said that a break during the school day gave children “a time to rest, play, imagine, think, move and socialize.”
But recess is worthwhile not just for getting kids out of a stuffy classroom, according to a report published last month in the academy’s journal Pediatrics.
“Ironically,” it said, “minimizing or eliminating recess may be counterproductive to academic achievement, as a growing body of evidence suggests that recess promotes not only physical health and social development, but also cognitive performance.”
As is often the case with school facilities, equipment and other education amenities, children in high-poverty schools are less apt to have recess than children in more affluent communities are, the Pediatrics report noted.
Gallup conducted a poll of 1,951 principals in 2009 for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, reflecting a balance of schools that were urban, rural, rich and poor. Half said their students got 16 to 30 minutes of recess a day. One in five said testing requirements had led to a decrease in recess time.
Olga Jarrett, a professor of early childhood education at Georgia State University who’s conducted her own research into recess, said that when she asked teachers whether they offered it, “You find that many of them didn’t, either because things get too busy or preparing for tests or using it as a punishment.”
Another strike against recess, Gallup found, was that principals said that nearly 90 percent of their schools’ discipline problems happened outside of class, mostly at lunch or recess.
In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, where school officials say they require 30 minutes of “moderate to vigorous physical activity” per day, the district has been building new playgrounds with community support. One was built with a grant from NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson.
Jarrett has studied how children play at recess and the effect it has when they return to class. Teachers, take note:
“My own study showed that when kids had recess they were less fidgety and more on task after recess time,” she said.