How many breaks do you take throughout the day? How often do you get up from your desk and walk down the hall or across the street to a coffee shop? Most of us find that, particularly when we are struggling with a difficult task or feeling frustrated, taking a short break can help us return with a fresh perspective. Many successful companies, such as Google and LinkedIn, recognize this and provide recreational activities and spaces for their employees in an effort to increase their productivity and performance. Now imagine that you have the attention span of the average six-year-old (some of you actually might!). As a first grader, how often should you be allowed to get up, move your body, and socialize with friends? Once per day? Maybe twice?
Our schools have become so focused on achievement on tests designed to show progress in areas like reading and math that many have cut back on seemingly superfluous activities such as recess. Since the 1970s, students have lost approximately 12 hours per week of recess time. The prevailing logic behind this recess reduction is that we must increase time spent on academic pursuits; the only way to do this without increasing the length of the school day is to cut out time spent on non-academic areas, like recess or the arts. Additionally, there has been increased focus on the effects of bullying in the schools; many people believe that reducing unstructured playtime will also reduce opportunities for bullying.
This is a nationwide problem. Even here in Providence, many of our students do not have recess built into their daily schedules. Nina Tannenwald published a commentary in the Providence Journal on March 23, 2014 in which she lamented the fact that her first grade daughter’s class in a public elementary school on the East Side had not had recess in several months. A parent in Cranston, RI, commented on the piece, saying that she and her neighbors have been griping about the same problem there. Even more disturbing is the news that, across the country, schools with the highest low-income populations often have the least amount of time allotted for recess. Public schools in America are supposed to be an equalizing force, offering an equal opportunity for success to every single child, regardless of his or her background. Is play such an important part of that equation? According to many authorities, it is.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has espoused the benefits of play since 2012, when they released a statement promoting the importance of recess and stressing that it “should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.” Research demonstrates that free play is not only critical to students’ social-emotional development, but also to their ability to learn and process information. According to researcher Dr. Robert Murray of Ohio State University, a period of concentrated academic activity followed by a break permits children to better process information. Schools in Finland, which are often held up as an example for the rest of the world due to their high levels of achievement, have practiced this for years: students and teachers in Finland take a 15-minute break after every 45 minutes of classroom instruction. Tim Walker, an American teacher working in Finland, wrote about the benefits of this schedule in a recent essay in The Atlantic. Although initially skeptical of and resistant to the practice of recesses throughout the day, Mr. Walker discovered that his students needed those breaks and were considerably more focused during lessons. A study of Asian elementary schools found that, although their school days are longer than those of their American peers, the amount of instructional time is actually about the same: the longer school day includes more recesses and non-academic activities.
According to Dr. Anthony D. Pellegrini of the University of Minnesota, the important thing about recess is that it must be unstructured playtime with minimal adult interaction. It should not be teacher-directed or organized; therefore, physical education classes and organized sports are not a viable substitute for true recess. Peter Gray, an evolutionary psychologist at Boston College, authored a book last year called Free to Learn; in it, he argues that the rise in mental health disorders among children is attributable to the decline of free play. He believes that the distinction between playing and learning is, in fact, a nonexistent one: play is actually practice for life. Children at play learn to think critically, take initiative, and persevere when they fail. These are the very skills that companies say they want in their employees.
Who do we want our children to grow up to be? If we want students to grow up to be creative, innovative problem solvers, then we need to revamp our school schedules so that they actually support learning.
This article originally appeared in GoLocalProv.