State of play: how American schools are dropping the ball on recess

Recess not only improves academic achievement but promotes childhood wellbeing

Earlier this year Lucy Dathan, a mother newly elected to the Connecticut legislature, helped push a bill through requiring that school kids get a mandatory recess for 50 minutes.

Why? Her children were unable to pay attention to lessons, then came home drained of energy and irritable. Dathan attributed the change in mood to a move from a California school with a 40 minute recess to a Connecticut school where they only got 20 minutes a day.

Recess has many proven benefits. It is not only linked to a boost in academic achievement, but also helps develop social and behavioural skills, and promotes childhood wellbeing.

For Finnish students, the feelings experienced by American children may be less common. Finland is touted as having one of the best school systems in the world and consistently ranks at the top of the global education database. A core component they attribute to their success is periodic breaks and recess.

Recess policies instituting longer time for play are gaining momentum in the US, but American parents and educators are still in the dark of the benefits of recess, said Shannon Michael, health scientist at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). But as Finland continues to lead in academics while embracing the state of play, are American kids in danger of falling behind?

Child’s play

American school districts have opted for longer school days with more time spent solely on academic instruction over the past decade. That goes against a broader trend in the developed world that has seen schools embrace the importance of play and extended recess periods.

But researchers are proving that allocating more time to study while cutting down on free play may actually hinder children’s learning, having the opposite effect of what American schools are trying to achieve, according to a study by the Council on School Health.

Students in Finland enjoy a 15 minute break for every 45 minute lesson, as well as one or possibly two, 30 minute recesses.

Antti Blom, Programme Director, Finnish Schools on the Move programme at the Finnish National Agency for Education said that recess and breaks provide the “whole package”.

Blom reported that students have improved wellbeing, enjoy school more, and put forth more effort with better results.

“Making school longer doesn’t have core results in academic achievement,” said Antti Blom, Programme Director, Finnish Schools on the Move programme at the Finnish National Agency for Education.“Our finding is that short school days with short recess times and the practical recess, promote wellbeing in school and enjoyment of the school day.”

In a report the CDC, a federal agency that supports health in the US, it similarly revealed that students undergo physiological and cognitive changes when they are allowed unstructured time to play. Among other benefits, students are more attentive, learn coping skills, gain improved memory functions, and learn how to relieve stress better.

In the report, the CDC reviewed 14 studies that evaluated the relationship between academic performance, classroom behaviours and recess. The review concluded that there were no negative outcomes from any of the recess studies, while eight of the studies showed a positive connection between recess and cognitive skills and academic performance.

Unstructured free play, which is play without any learning objectives, provides children with emotional skills by allowing them to engage with their peers without parental intervention. Recess also provides a sense of enjoyment away from classroom time, which changes children’s attitudes and helps relieve stress, the report stated.

Moving forward

American school districts have a history of reversing recess policies in favor of more stringent academic time. A school district in Atlanta, Georgia is one example where parents, educators, and school districts are taking steps to replace outdated policies that limit play-time for students.

In 1998, the Atlanta school district ended recess for public elementary schools. Although the Atlanta school district has since reversed course, stipulations are currently still in place that limits daily recess for elementary school kids. But now in an effort to move forward, a new bill, instituting a policy requiring daily recess, passed this week and is awaiting the Atlanta Governor, Brian Kemp’s signature to become law.

The CDC has researched and devised a uniform recess strategy recommending 20 minutes of recess daily, but it is not required by law.

Although state laws mandating recess are gaining traction and some schools have implemented recess policies without having state laws, currently, only 12 states have passed requirements for sanctioned recess time. In those 12 states, recess time amounts to 20 and 30 minutes per day.

Michael said that improvements need to be made at the school level for accountability from school boards and principles to adhere to existing policies because currently there is a big disconnect between states, districts, and schools.

She also underscores another problem, parents and educators don’t know the health and academic benefits of recess.

If we highlight [the benefits] more than it might be easier to identify and model a policy around recess, which might get some additional traction,” Michael said.

Despite not all the benefits coming to light, she remains hopeful that things are changing due to the movement from many states in the last few years.

“Parents are a loud voice of changing the policy for recess, because they see their kids are sitting down for long periods of time, aren’t getting their work done, and are misbehaving,” she said. “Parents play a vital role in changing recess policy and putting recess in place.” – Amelia Axelsen

(Picture credit: Unsplash / Annie Pratt)

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