|Recess (Image from Flickr by Sam Pullara)|
The testing mania that has swept the nation for the past decade has been devastating for children in numerous ways. Testing is stressful for children. It takes away class time from more meaningful content and learning. It undermines creativity, curiosity and critical thinking. It also may be contributing to obesity and other health problems while also impairing cognitive development.
In order to increase time in the classroom—a common strategy for providing more test preparation and boosting test scores—schools across the country have eliminated PE and recess. According to the 4LAKids Blog, more than 40% of the nation’s school districts have reduced, eliminated or are considering eliminating recess. A 2012 survey of 1,800 elementary schools found that nearly one-third of schools did not offer any recess for their third-graders.
It is not just teachers that are complaining. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is also criticizing this trend, saying that recess gives children cognitive, social, emotional and physical benefits they cannot get while sitting at a school desk. The authors go further, stating the recess should not be denied to students for punitive or academic reasons. The Academy’s policy statement was based on several studies connecting recess to increased classroom attentiveness and productivity.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that schools require daily physical activity totaling 150 minutes a week for K-5 students and 225 minutes a week for 6th-12th-graders. However, even this seems woefully inadequate. 150 minutes per week averages out to only 30 minutes per day. Doctors recommend that adults get this much cardiovascular exercise per day just to maintain their physical health. However, according to the AAP, elementary school age children not only need 60 minutes of daily physical activity for good physical health, they also need it for their cognitive and emotional development.
Physical activity during the school day serves several functions. The most immediate effect is that it allows students a mental break from their academic content. Children have limited attention spans. Therefore, from a purely cost-benefit perspective it is inefficient to force students to sit still for long periods of time—the longer they sit still without a break, the lower their attention and concentration. However, recess also gives students the opportunity to hone their communication, problem solving and coping skills as they play games with peers, negotiate collaborative activities and resolve the inevitable conflicts that arise when having to share limited resources on the playground.
The AAP also said that PE should not be substituted for recess. This is because PE classes tend to be structured and have content standards and academic expectations, while recess tends to be unstructured, giving children more freedom to choose how to play and interact with peers. When it is treated as their own personal time, to use as they prefer, recess can be an empowering activity that contributes to their self-confidence and sense of responsibility, while promoting creativity and independence and countering the stultifying effects of traditional teacher-centered and rote curriculum.