Dirt, Drama, and Picking Teams: Recess Makes Better Kids

Last week I came upon one of my daughter’s white shirts, covered in brown goop of unknown origin. I figured that it was watercolor from art or some mystery sauce from lunch. Turns out, it was dirt and moss from ongoing fort-building that the fourth graders had undertaken at recess.

The explanation went something like this… “Well, we had to dig up the moss with sticks and then carry it back to the fence where we were building our fort.” If I’m understanding my nine-year-old correctly, she used her shirt as a sort of tarp on which she piled the moss to carry it across the playground.

They’ve been back at school for a few weeks now and, invariably, when I ask my kids what they did each day, I’m regaled with stories of drama, exploration, and ingenuity. There is also the occasional ball-to-the-face followed by trip to the nurse or so-and-so got in trouble again story, but those seem to be relatively rare. Most of these stories, told at a rapid pace, seemingly all on one breath, take place during the half an hour they spend every day at recess.

Only eight states currently require recess. “One in four elementary schools no longer provides recess to all grades,” according to information compiled for The State of Play, a 2010 report created by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Across the country, when teachers and administrators need to cut something, recess is always an easy target – there’s no curriculum and little structure, so it’s not easy to see the benefits.

A couple of years ago, when the Orange County, Florida Board of Education (OCPS) decided not to mandate recess in schools, 23 of the 100 schools in the district canceled recess. The rationale from OCPS, in their words, was, “Fifty-seven percent of 1,940 OCPS teachers surveyed believe they do not have adequate time to teach the new Florida Standards during the current school day. During this challenging transition time to more demanding standards and testing, it would be difficult to mandate a reduction of instructional minutes.”

I get it, there’s a lot to teach these days. The stress to fit it all in is huge and I don’t think any of us envy the challenges that teachers face. But cancelling or cutting back on recess is not the answer. In fact, recess is instructional – it teaches our kids a lot and cutting it out is likely doing more harm than good. Plus, we all need to keep in mind that, in about 10 or 15 years, these kids are going to be the new employees that we need to hire. If we need critical thinkers and employees that can solve disputes without calling us, their bosses, every five minutes, we need kids to develop these skills now.

Some schools around the country have realized the benefits of recess and have made positive changes. Schools in Texas and Oklahoma have doubled the amount of time kids spend at recess through their involvement in the LiiNK Project, a project originally underwritten across multiple schools within TCU, Texas Christian University. The project partners with schools to to implement four 15 minute recess breaks throughout the day and to institute three 15 minute character building sessions each week. After its first year, 2013 – 2014, the project found that listening improved dramatically and off-task activities decreased significantly. As of the start of the 2016 school year, the program is being rolled out to 14 public schools in addition to the two private schools that participated the first year.

While a bill to require 20 minutes of recess in all Florida schools died in the state senate in March of 2016, the outcry from parents and national media coverage led Orange County Public Schools to add language to their wellness policy that, if approved in December, will mandate at least 20 minutes of recess per day in all schools.

In an effort to help everyone justify the time our kids should be spending on the playground this year, here are five reasons why recess is critical for our kids.

1. Kids behave better in the classroom if they have physical activity built into their schedules. Enough said.

Okay, that should be enough, but if you need more, a secondary analysis of data captured in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, showed that teachers’ ratings of the classroom behavior scores of 8- and 9-year olds, were higher for children that had at least one 15 minute or longer recess period per day.

Kids behave better when they have recess.

Studies have also shown that this holds true for children with ADHD. A 2003 study, published in the School Psychology Quarterly, of children diagnosed with ADHD found that “Levels of inappropriate behavior were consistently higher on days when participants did not have recess, compared with days when they did have recess.”

Kids, including those with ADHD, behave better when they have recess.

2. Free play teaches kids not to be bullies and how to deal with being bullied. Recess is a great opportunity for free play.

Bullying rates have ticked up dramatically in recent years, so much so that it is the focus of many a school assembly and many organized sports program have built-in anti-bullying lessons. Kids can be cruel. Kids were cruel when we were kids. The difference is that the littlest generation – the now elementary schoolers – aren’t developing the tools to stand up to bullies and, at the same time, bullies aren’t getting the dose of comeuppance that used to dissuade them from continuing their bad behavior.

Kids learn how to interact with other kids during free play, which is defined as play without adult interaction. Levels of free play have decreased dramatically, for many reasons, over the past couple of decades. Recess is one of the best opportunities that kids have to interact with their peers in an unstructured, free play environment. Without this, kids are missing out on a critical opportunity for character development.

After all, if you’re playing outside with a bunch of kids, and one kid is being a bully, the majority of kids are going to decide that they don’t want the bully on their team. What’s worse than being the last kid picked for kickball or basketball when you’re eight? Not much. These kid-to-kid feedback mechanisms are key to teaching bullies that their behavior isn’t acceptable. They’re also key to teaching kids how to manage the bullies in their lives. What better way to teach the bullies a lesson than by not wanting to play with them anymore?

3. Kids learn creativity when left to their own devices, like they are on the playground.

We highlight innovation as a key skill our kids will need when they are out in the workforce in a decade or two. We talk about incorporating design thinking (a process for defining a problem and applying creative problem solving to the problem) in our schools. Yet we keep kids sitting inside the classroom and lecture at them more and more. We teach to the test, whether we want to admit it or not, because, well, how can we not? We are sucking the creativity out of our children.

Stick two kids together with no parental involvement and few toys and they’ll figure out a way to entertain themselves. Organize every minute of their play time and they’ll never develop the key skills that they’ll need later in life when problems aren’t handed to them tied up in a nice bow, wrapped up in nice Melissa & Doug packaging. Figuring out what to do with mulch, sticks and some sand will surely spur creative thinking skills not utilized reading a textbook or listening to a teacher talk. Kids need time to organize their own games and solve their own problems – social and tactical. They need to watch the older kids on the playground to learn from them. I’m pretty sure no parent ever taught us the best way to make mud pies or how to play Capture the Flag when we were young. Older kids are often the best teachers for some things.

4. Kids learn leadership skills, negotiation skills and how to be a good team player when organizing their own games.

Leave a bunch of elementary school kids on the playground for any length of time and they will start to organize themselves. Some will want to play family, some will want to play foursquare, some will head to the tire swing. And, invariably, there will be conflict. Playing “family” requires negotiation skills to decide who gets to be the mom and who has to be the baby, a role not necessarily coveted by many of the kids, yet crucial to the success of the game. The tire swing only fits four people – how do they decide who goes first and who pushes? Four square involves rules – who teaches the new kids how to play? These are skills kids won’t learn in the classroom, where adults direct most of their actions. The back and forth, assertion of will and acceptance of not getting their way, are critical to the development of leadership, organizational and sportsmanship skills.

5. Kids need exercise and they need to learn good exercise habits while they’re young.

We have a major obesity problem in the United States, among children and adults. Exercise can help children and adults lose weight. We also have a physical fitness problem in the United States. The authors of the Timbernook Blog found that “most of the children” today have poor strength and balance, compared to one in 12 children in the 1980s. These two key physical problems, in addition to just being plain unhealthy, contribute to kids’ inability to sit still in class, leading to fidgeting and inability to pay attention.

I think it’s safe to say that if kids are so fidgety that they can’t sit down in class and are granted a waiver to stand at their desks during the class day (as some kids are in Forsyth County, Georgia), there may be a little more recess in order.

Time Magazine’s cover story this week, entitled “The New Science of Exercise”, touts exercise as a “miracle drug”, citing scientific research that has shown that exercise improves memory and bone strength, improves blood flow to the brain, which can trigger the growth of new blood vessels and brain cells, improves skin and eye health, Jim and possibly prevents or delays Alzheimer’s onset, among many other benefits. On the flip side, lack of exercise can lead to higher rates of depression and anxiety, can increase arthritis symptoms and lower-back pain, and has correlates with rising obesity rates.

Exercise has also been shown to lower rates of depression and, interestingly, a new study has shown that kids who exercise before lunch eat more fruits and vegetables. Joseph Price from BYU and David Just from Cornell studied 1st through 6th graders and found that moving recess before lunch increased fruit and vegetable consumption by 54%.

We also know that healthy habits are more likely to stick with us when we’re older if they’re developed when we’re young. Why not give kids the best chance to be healthy adults by showing them that we, as their parents and educators, believe in healthy lifestyles?

The bottom line, as far as recess is concerned, is that if kids can’t concentrate, they won’t learn. If they’re being bullied, they’re not concentrating. Recess helps kids behave better in class, reduces rates of bullying, and provides free play opportunities where kids can practice creativity, leadership, and sportsmanship. To top it all off, more exercise equals lower obesity rates and teaching our kids the importance of good physical habits when they’re young can reap lifelong rewards.

We need to look at the benefits of recess and not let testing and other pressures cloud our judgment. Critical activities like recess produce so much good and shouldn’t be abandoned, but rather should be viewed as a standard part of the educational process.

It’s hard to find time to fit it all in, but by not mandating recess, we’re doing the kids – and ourselves – irreparable harm and missing out on great opportunities to set our kids up for success later in life. I’ll take moss and dirt-covered clothes, along with the lessons they help kids to learn, over clean and neat any day.

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