The Many Benefits of Physical Activity During the School Day
If you ask my nephew about his favorite times of the school day – he doesn’t hesitate to answer recess, gym, and lunch. And he is not alone in this category of kids who just can’t wait to get away from their desks and face fewer restrictions on their movements and conversations. This doesn’t mean that my nephew (or any of the kids like him) isn’t academically inclined. It means that he knows something that was recently published as a new policy statement for the American Academy of Pediatrics:
Recess is essential for healthy development.
Dr. Robert Murray, co-author of the policy which was published Monday in the journal Pediatrics goes on the record to say that recess is a “crucial and necessary component of a child’s development.”
Recess is about more than four-square, tag, and shouting across the playground. It is essential for children who are regimented to spend hours behind a desk or seated in a circle each day. Children not only get to wiggle out those ever-present wiggles, but they are also exposed to important opportunities.
- A more unregulated opportunity to develop communication skills
- Cooperation and sharing opportunities
- The good old fashioned need to move and release physical energy
In fact, pediatricians are pushing for school districts to keep recess as important as any other class period during the day. A teacher wouldn’t consider keeping a boy out of math class because he was goofing off during assembly, and pediatricians say that children shouldn’t be denied recess as a punishment or because they are struggling academically and need to use recess as study time. The time that children spend sitting in classes and through lectures is counteracted by things like recess and free play time. They are needed to help balance each other.
Murray goes on to discuss how valuable recess is, comparing it to the breaks we need while at work during the day. The difference is, however, that most of us work in environments where we have some control over our movements. We don’t need to ask for permission to use the bathroom, stand and stretch our legs, or to go get a drink of water. We do these things because our bodies tell us that they need these mini breaks. During the day, kids who are behind desks aren’t able to move as freely, and recess is the time they need to decompress from the rigors of academics.
Recess Not a National Priority
Research has shown that children who are allowed to move throughout the day in the form of recess and other opportunities actually perform better academically. They are able to pay closer attention to their studies and assignments. The research also shows that when emphasis is placed on physical activity it can help lower the climbing obesity rates.
However, even though the research clearly shows that recess is a positive part of the school day, because there aren’t scores to be measured on a standardized test, recess is not a priority for far too many school districts. Recommendations by the American Heart Association include 2.5 hours of physical education each week, and 20 minutes of recess every day. But even in the face of all the research and at the urging of health officials,
- Only 8 states suggest or require 3rd graders get daily recess.
- 23 states (less than 50%), have any laws requiring schools to offer PE classes, and only 6 of these states require the minimum amount of 2.5 hours/week.
- About 70% of schools surveyed report offering 3rd graders recess every day, but only 18% were given the recommended amount of 2.5 hours each week. However, those schools that offer the recommended amount of PE were less likely to fulfill the recommended hours of recess, and the reverse was also true.
- Schools within states that mandated or encouraged PE or recess were more than twice as likely to meet these recommendations.
- Schools with mainly minority populations are least likely to have the recommended PE and recess times.
- Research also shows that recess should be scheduled before lunch time for the maximum benefits for the students, so they don’t rush through eating to get to the coveted recess.
What Can You Do About Your Child’s School?
Researchers and health advocates both agree – parents need to demand that states require schools to offer adequate PE and recess times. Unless and until this happens, schools will likely continue to forgo what has been proven to be beneficial because PE and recess aren’t covered directly on standardized tests. Parents can also push for more frequent and smaller breaks throughout the day if PE classes aren’t possible. Even if your child is not a kinesthetic learner, research has shown that exercise and free play provide academic and health benefits – which probably explains why my nephew is so smart!