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Not just child's play: Don't take away recess, docs argue

Daily recess, it seems, is going the way of the dinosaurs  – but it shouldn’t, the nation’s pediatricians say.

As more and more grade schools drop this time-honored break from their schedules, members of the American Academy of Pediatrics are speaking out in hopes of reversing the trend, pointing to recess’s benefits to both learning and health.

In a position statement released Monday in the journal Pediatrics, the AAP laid out the scientific evidence showing that kids need daily recess to keep them mentally sharp and physically healthy.  

“Every school needs to find a way for recess to happen for every child,” says the paper’s co-author Catherine Ramstetter, a health educator at The Christ College of Nursing and Health Sciences in Cincinnati. “And it shouldn’t be something that is taken away because a kid forgot to bring his homework.”  

Yet 77 percent of nearly 2,000 principals surveyed in a 2009 Gallup poll on recess, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, reported withholding recess from children as punishment. The Gallup report, called "The State of Play," also noted that one in four elementary schools no longer provides recess to all grades. 

Unfortunately, Ramstetter says, recess has been an easy target for school administrators who are afraid of lawsuits over playground accidents and who feel pressured to improve academic performance by adding more instruction time. That approach is just wrong-headed, she says.

“We hope to encourage parents to make the case that recess helps with education,” Ramstetter says. “Research shows that children who take a break are more ready to be learning.”

In fact, studies have shown that kids are more attentive and productive when they get a break from academics, Ramstetter notes. And while some educators would like to believe that moving from math class to reading constitutes a break, Ramstetter says, “shifting from numbers to words isn’t enough. That’s just a shift in the kind of demands.”

The downtime recess provides gives kids’ brains a rest and also a chance to think more creatively, Ramstetter says. And for antsy kids, recess can be a time to blow off steam, allowing them to focus better when classes resume.

And then there’s the issue of the growing childhood obesity epidemic.

Ramstetter and her colleagues note that many kids benefit from exercise during recess. “Even minor movement during recess counterbalances sedentary time at school and at home and helps the child achieve the recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day ... which can help lower the risk of obesity.”

That makes a lot of sense to Arthur Weltman, a professor and director of the exercise physiology program at the University of Virginia.

Kids these days are frighteningly sedentary, Weltman says. And that’s going to haunt us some 20 years from now in terms of health care costs.

Further, Weltman says, “there’s a lot of data indicating that increased physical activity in children not only improves health, but also increases learning. There is data showing that kids who get recess do better on standardized tests and that teachers perceive them as paying better attention.”

If you look at countries known for excellent academics, you won’t see them cutting out recess, Weltman says. The Japanese, for example, give their kids a 15 minute break every hour.

Child development expert, Alan Kazdin, says the Pediatrics report’s only flaw is that it didn’t go far enough. Cutting back on recess is “misguided,” says Kazdin, the John M. Musser professor of Psychology and Child Psychiatry at Yale University. “There are such enormous benefits from exercise, at the cellular level and for diverse facets of mental health.”

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