Studies, and teacher experience, show the value of outdoor activity during school day
By Anna Philpot
Santa Fe mom Tanja Bolle’s 6-year-old son didn’t want to go to first grade, preferring to forego learning to read, in order to stay in kindergarten — and play more.
“My boys are very active,” says Bolle. “They need to move.”
Recess has been a staple of the American school day for more than a century, yet school districts across the country have slashed both recess and physical education in recent years. This reduction comes even though the American Academy of Pediatrics states that free, unstructured play is vital for children’s health, improving cognitive, social and physical development while lowering stress and improving resilience. Kids get stressed; the pressure for continual academic success weighs on most youngsters. Adding to students’ worries are the challenges of interacting with peers for several hours each day. It’s no wonder children crave downtime. As Santa Fe Waldorf School’s pedagogical director Kay Hoffman puts it, primary schoolchildren need “time to run around, get rosy-cheeked and let go of part of the day.”
Before Bolle’s son started attending Gonzales Elementary School last year, she worried about his ability to sit still long enough to learn.
“Of course I want my son to learn to read and write, to learn math and other skills,” she says. “I know how hard it can be to find time for everything in a school day.” Bolle says Gonzales principal Michael Lee understands the importance of movement; in fact, she’s seen some of the schoolteachers taking their children on walks before starting their school day. “That made me feel so much better about Gonzales and Santa Fe schools,” she says.
All public school parents are aware of the standardized testing kids face in the spring; we know that schools are fighting for limited resources and that many of those funds are based on test scores. That makes time during the school day even more precious, and recess has suffered. Olga Jarrett, a professor of early childhood education at Georgia State University, told a group of teachers, “There is this assumption that if you keep kids working longer, they will learn more. It’s misguided.”
Eldorado kindergarten teacher Lucille Fresquez put it more succinctly: “When kids get squirmy, they don’t learn as well.”
Fortunately for children like Bolle’s, the Santa Fe Public School (SFPS) hasn’t eliminated or drastically reduced recess district-wide. “The schools do offer time to students for some free play at lunch-time, physical education and additional opportunities for exercise while in class and through extracurricular offerings,” notes Athletic Director Kimberly Loomis. But because SFPS allows each school to determine its own recess policy, some of our schools are shortening recess — even as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that 42 percent of schoolchildren get most of their total daily exercise at recess.
As adults, we forget just how much learning actually comes from recreation. Running, jumping, climbing, sliding and swinging all help strengthen the sensorimotor cortex (which manages vision, hearing and touch), the first brain region to develop fully. Basic play activities like climbing to the top of structures offers a different view of the world, while reinforcing concepts like spatial relationships (both in relation to objects and other people).
Recess and similar opportunities for free, unstructured play also help children be more physically fit. Today nearly one out of every five children in this country is considered obese. In the last 30 years, children’s free time has declined by about 12 hours per week — with 50 percent of that loss in unstructured outdoor play, according to a 2005 survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics. Kids need time to yell, whoop, run and simply be kids in a less strictly supervised environment. Those unstructured-play moments are when children learn valuable social skills — something Hoffman believes are becoming even more critical as social networking sites compete with face-to-face interactions.
Meribeth Densmore wonders why her first- and fourth-grade boys at Eldorado Community School can’t have longer recesses, even if that playtime would extend the school day. Students “spend the entire day on a schedule,” Densmore says. “Time where they can just do whatever with their friends is fantastic. Children learn to negotiate and compromise — important life skills — when they work through confrontations.”
Hoffman notes that recess puts children in a natural — not virtual — environment, and being outside reduces anxiety and blood pressure. Recess can help teachers understand their current students and their class dynamics, especially during the first weeks of school and when new students join the class. Fresquez says that during these academic breaks, “I see the natural leaders and learn why certain children choose not to participate in games. I see the kids who gravitate toward each other and students with bullying tendencies, which we can then work to nip in the bud.” Her kindergarten class’s average recess is 15 to 20 minutes, at least twice — if not three times — a day. While two recesses are standard for Eldorado elementary students, E.J. Martinez’s 2011-12 third grade classes had one 15-minute recess right after lunch, the same schedule followed by Capshaw Middle School.
Rebecca Gonzales, who teaches third grade at E.J. Martinez Elementary School, is an advocate of No Child Left Inside, a national movement focusing on environmental literacy started by Richard Louv’s 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. In her perfect school day, she’d have two recesses and teach integrated lessons outdoors. Yet the administration at E.J. Martinez allows one lunch recess; Gonzales was actually asked last year not to take her children outside so much.
Beyond the play aspect, Gonzales says recess is when some of her students talk to her about issues they’re facing, regarding both academic challenges and other children. “Recess is less formalized and the kids seem to feel more comfortable approaching me then,” she says.
Along with concern about the amount of recess their children have each day, many parents question the timing of recess, typically right after lunch. For students who go through the lunch line to buy a hot meal, the amount of time to eat is even shorter, with some children taking a few bites on the way to the trashcan. Kids are faced with a choice between food and play, and the latter part of the school day may suffer.
Capshaw Middle School’s Assistant Principal Clara Evans sees evidence of this, noting a rise in discipline problems in fifth period (the class right after lunch). Densmore, who says her two sons always choose play over eating enough, wonders why recess can’t come before lunch, so kids come to the lunchroom hungry and wiggle-free.
When it comes to the need for outdoor play, “I’ve learned to listen to the children,” says Fresquez. “They’re the smart ones.”
Fresquez is right: Recent brain studies found play improves educational achievement because body movement improves blood vessels’ ability to deliver oxygen, water and glucose (a necessary nutrient) to the brain. Basically, play awakens the mind and makes it more susceptible to learning or testing. Play also burns calories and makes kids like physical activity. And other studies prove that active students receive higher test scores and have better attitudes about school.
“Movement helps kids so much. It just makes teaching easier,” says Fresquez.