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By Jane Shook, M.S.,CCC, SLP
Bruno Bettleheim, the noted child psychologist, asserted that play was the work of children. More serious work is happening during recess than “idle play.” During recess children learn to take turns, resolve conflicts, exercise their bodies, solve problems and entertain themselves. All are experimenting with ways to revive energy and modify their arousal system to return to class more alert. Both high impact physical exercise and less strenuous activities release chemicals in the brain that give a sense of well-being and alertness. When the body is alert, the various sensory systems “talk to each other” so they can function in an integrated manner. Under these conditions the body is in a state where the most efficient learning happens with the greatest retention and generalization. Eliminating recess is counterproductive to the learning process.
Recess provides time for children to manage the stress of sitting still in a chair for extended periods of time. Research by the American Association for the Children’s Right to Play (1998) looked at fourth grade children on recess days, PE days, and no break days. The results found that children were significantly less fidgety and more focused on their task after having recess. One child interviewed in this study stated, “When we don’t have recess, I feel like screaming. When we do have recess, I do scream!” Some children need to jump and fall and roll. Others hang out with friends, walking around and talking. A few lean against a wall, or sit on the cool rough sidewalk, or scratch in the dirt. Almost all need a cool drink, and many a snack. Most children want to play with friends, but a few prefer to break away from classmates to collect their thoughts or study ants.
Eliminating recess for poor classroom behavior or lack of work produced is also counterproductive. The children who are having difficulty with behavior are signaling to the teacher that their sensory neural systems are malfunctioning, and “acting out” is their ineffective way of getting their system to normalize. Children having difficulty with completing assignments are also indicating that either their arousal system is too high or too low, or their sensory motor abilities are not adequately able to execute the tasks as fluently and quickly as their classmates. Each of these areas of difficulty is best addressed from the foundational issues of creating an environment to normalize arousal, heighten focusing, and increase motor coordination and planning. Eliminating recess to motivate children to try harder is a top down approach which in effect says, “Run with a broken leg.”
A recent trend in educational circles has been to eliminate or cut back on time for recess to make time for more academic areas of learning. In 1983 the ‘Nation at Risk’ report cast light on American school children’s poor standing internationally. Educators responded by focusing more on formal training and teaching standardized tests. This view saw time spent outside the classroom is “wasted.” The theory is that the more time spent at their desks equals higher test scores. In reality the 1998 comparison study found that the amount of time gained from eliminating recess was equal to the time lost in non-productive fidgeting. In reality the more time spent in preparing to test and in test taking, the less time is available for real teaching. Eliminating recess is counterproductive to achieving bottom line academic goals.
All people, adults as well as children, have unique ways of calming their nervous systems after intense periods of study and stillness. The US Army requires a ten-minute break every hour during training sessions, because the “at rest” time increases the likelihood of greater results when training over an extended period of time. Judges call a recess when jurors seem to become fidgety or unfocused. Labor unions mandate both morning and afternoon breaks in addition to an extended lunch break to ensure safety. Fortune 500 companies often provide exercise rooms for employees finding exercise creates greater productivity. Our children should be treated with no less respect.
Let’s learn from the extensive brain and behavioral research and apply it sensibly. Parents as well as teachers need to raise their powerful voices in the political process to reverse the trend and ensure recess is available. Parents need to firmly insist teachers not eliminate recess for behavioral or academic deficiencies. Be willing to support more effective ways that address both of these problems. We have a small window of time to teach skills required for a lifetime; so don’t take away Joanie’s recess!