Making the case for more school recess

How did you learn that water flowed downhill?

For most of us, this question will conjure up images of playing in a creek as a child or splashing in the gutter during a heavy rain, but for children in the Virginia public school system, the answer to this question will be “my teacher told me.”

The Virginia Standards of Learning specify “water flows downhill” as a learning criterion for kindergarteners. Schools across the country have cut down on recess time as early as elementary school to leave more time to teach the content that will appear on standardized tests. But in order to increase test scores, should schools do the exact opposite and increase the amount of time their students spend outside every day?

According to the research, yes.

Not only does recess protect the freedom and joy of childhood, it improves students’ academic achievement and overall health. Recess and outdoor time promotes physical activity, which is important for students’ physical health, as it reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity and high blood pressure. However, most children do not meet the CDC’s recommendation for daily physical activity, which is easy to understand when they spend most of the daylight hours sitting at a desk in a classroom.

Additionally, the benefits of outdoor time extend far beyond the expected physical outcomes. Outdoor time, especially when paired with physical activity, is linked to higher self-esteem, better mood and lower levels of stress for students, all outcomes we desire for our children and students.

There are also developmental benefits to unstructured outdoor play.

Outdoor time for young children is linked with the development of fine motor skills, balance and coordination, making it particularly important in early childhood. For educators and parents who are concerned that increasing time outside will lower student achievement by cutting back on instruction time, it is in fact quite the opposite.

Recess gives students a mental break, or a way to clear their minds before they begin the next lesson. Children are particularly prone to cognitive interference, a psychological phenomenon where the demands of a high attention, cognitively demanding task interferes with the ability to perform another high-attention task afterward by creating confusion. Recess time has been shown to reduce cognitive interference in children, leading to higher academic achievement in tasks completed after even a short break.

The effects of recess are particularly remarkable in students with ADHD. While recess improves the attention of all students, students with ADHD show significant improvements in attention and general appropriate classroom behavior when they have more outdoor time. Among students with ADHD, not only are symptoms lower when the students have had recess, but symptoms do not increase throughout the day. Fewer inappropriate or disruptive behaviors mean more learning, both for the student with ADHD and for their classmates.

While individual elementary schools have little leeway in deciding how much time is spent at recess, there are changes they can make throughout the day to increase outdoor time and physical activity. The most obvious is moving P.E. outdoors.

Most elementary P.E. classes use equipment such as jump ropes and hula hoops, which can easily be brought outside, giving students an extra 50 minutes of outdoor time a week. Classroom teachers can also make changes that increase outdoor time and physical activity.

Small changes throughout the week can add up to big results. Instead of having students review material by asking them recall questions in the classroom, set up an outdoor relay race, where teams must come up with an answer to the question, have a member run to the teacher and answer it and get a new question.

Another common classroom activity in elementary schools in one where students must go on a scavenger hunt around the classroom to find math or reading problems on cards on the wall. With a little extra effort, this entire activity could be moved outside.

If teachers could find a way to add 10 minutes of outdoor time to their instruction each day and P.E. classes were moved outside, it would double the amount of outdoor time students have each week.

We need to stop viewing outdoor time as time that students are not learning and instead intentionally build it into the school day, allowing students to reach their full potential academically, while supporting their physical and mental health and allowing them to learn that water flows downhill the natural way, because they will.

Miller is a student at the College of William and Mary studying education.

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