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“Go Play!”

March 2, 2009

boys on a walk

You know now your parents were right.  Most parents today know that going out to play is good  for our kids, but there are many reasons why we (and they) do not act on it.  During the school day, we know it’s good for kids to take a break from learning to consolidate brain activity, move their bodies and make their own choices in what they do.  Schools are decreasing recess time and children are spending less time in their neighborhoods outdoors.  Rae Pica ( writes that this week is “National Recess Week” and got me thinking and reading on recess and outdoor play.

In experimental studies, researchers found that elementary school children became progressively inattentive when recess was delayed, resulting in more active play when recess occurred. Another study found that fourth-graders were more on-task and less fidgety in the classroom on days when they had recess, with hyperactive children among those who benefited the most. Clearly, breaks are helpful, both for attention and for classroom management, whether or not the breaks are in the form of recess.  But often recess may be the only opportunity for some children to engage in social interactions with other children. Even if classrooms do allow for social interaction, “real” recess allows for children to self-select (with or without input from peers) activities, move their bodies, release endorphins, and work on social skills.

Much of what children do during recess, including the sharing of their culture, making choices, and developing rules for play, involves the development of social skills. If you watch children at recess or any outdoor play, they organize their own games, decide on the rules and determine which team goes first or who is “it.” In first grade, often those rules vary by the interpreter/player or change at any given moment – but that simply adds to the social learning. Recess provides a more open setting where children are free to leave the play situation and do, often gravitating toward activities or people they enjoy, or learning that sometimes removing yourself from a situation is a good option.

Recess is one of the few times in the school day when children can interact freely with peers.  It’s a valuable time for adults to observe children’s social behaviors.  It’s truly one of my favorite times of the day to do some quality kid-watching!  Not only to they organize and play games which seem indecipherable, but they also engage in imaginary play and learn to negotiate, take risks in what they can do physically, and  laugh unabashedly!   In our school, we have a conflict mediation program where third and fourth graders are trained to be peer mediators.  They work with children in our lower school to resolve conflicts peacefully, often on the playground.  Each classroom teacher also addresses conflict resolution and strategies, so that when a “Conflict Manager” is a called upon, there is a context and level of respect for the process which allows the children to resolve playground issues with remarkable independence and skill.  So while recess may appear to be simply free time, there is actually a great deal of social learning unfolding along with the physical activity and imaginative play.

In addition to cutting recess, many schools are cutting physical education classes and adding to the academic demands at all levels.  It’s tragic, really.  Children need other opportunities to move their bodies throughout the day.  Beyond recess and P.E.,  teachers and parents need to find time to get children moving.  I know teachers who utilize “Brain Gym” – a formal curriculum which includes easy and enjoyable, targeted activities that integrate body and mind.  A few minutes of Brain Gym activities in between lessons goes a long way in relaxing all those muscles engaged in the hard work of learning so they are ready for the next phase.  Other teachers utilize yoga or simple meditation/breathing exercises or simply send kids on errands which requires a walk or moving something (engaging large muscles and provides a break from learning).  These don’t make up for recess, but they do provide small breaks for consolidation throughout the day.

So what happens after school?  Undoubtedly, many children are at school or other activities in the afternoon while parents are at work.  If you are not home after school to orchestrate walks, bike rides, neighborhood games, look — or ask for — outdoor activities.   Our school’s enrichment program offers a wide range of activities for children, but when a local and legendary outdoor educator came on board to offer classes such a “Primitive Technology” and archery, those classes filled almost immediately.  From my classroom window, I watch kids learn to safely build a fire, construct quill pens, play with the instructors chocolate lab and generally have a ball in a setting where someone  encourages them to be loud, get messy, and challenge themselves outdoors.  With or without an adult, time outdoors is essential for healthy childhood development and physical well-being.

Recently, our school change dismissal so that the children who sat through dismissal to go home with middle school siblings now come to the gym to play games for 20 minutes. I’m not a P.E. teacher, but this new part of my day has changed my perspective.  With minimal input from me, this group of 12 or more kids decide on a game and teams,  supports and encourages each other, and has a ball! We’ve got highly skilled and competitive nine year olds and shy five year olds, but they engage each other and cheer each other on.  And when their parents arrive in the car line, parents report that they are tired, happy and a bit more ready to tackle the afternoon.

This all sounds good for our children, but doesn’t it also ring true for you as an adult, too?  If you’re in a position, and disciplined enough, to take a walk or workout during the day, do you feel more productive when you return to work?  Do you walk to meetings or take a break from the pace of work in order to “clear your head”?  Think about the rapid brain development in kids and how important these breaks are to them.  Even if your child’s school doesn’t afford multiple opportunities in seven hour day to move around, schedule something physical right after school.  Homework and dinner must might unfold a bit more peacefully!

Other interesting sites on this topic:

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 2, 2009 3:10 pm

    Lisa, thanks for expanding on the topic of recess!

    You’re right to point out that recess is often the only time children have to interact with each other. I’ve been in schools where they weren’t even allowed to talk during lunch! It makes you wonder how children will ever learn the social skills they need in order to get along in the world.

    Your readers may want to hear what Olga Jarrett, president of the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play, had to say about recess in an interview with me for Body, Mind and Child. They can hear her — and other experts addressing equally important topics! — at All of the podcasts are only about 10 minutes long — in consideration of busy parents and professionals!

    By the way, LOVE the story about the new dismissal policy and its effect on the kids!

  2. March 4, 2009 3:14 am

    This is a great article, I am going to link to it on my blog. It is so important for kids to have that release outside and that social interaction. Thanks for writing the article!


  3. wonderofchildren permalink*
    March 13, 2009 12:26 am

    This isn’t me commenting on my own blog…just commenting on behalf of my Gramma, who is sharp as a tack, but not on line. A relative gives Gram hard copies of my blog which is why I believe she took the time to cut an article out from the Greenville Reflector titled, The three Rs? A fourth is crucial, too: Recess. Sweet of her to send it. Check out the link above to read about a Harvard study published in the Journal of School Health which finds the more physical fitness test children passed, the better they did on academic tests. It also states that “human beings experience attention fatigue…our attention has to be restored from that fatigue.” Another example of research telling us what we know but don’t always employ. Thanks, Gram!

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