The importance of three R's: Reading, writing and recess

In this era of high-stakes testing, recess has taken a back seat to more scholarly pursuits. But don't be so quick to dismiss the value of downtime, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The organization began studying the importance of taking a break in 2007. The results? Play doesn't just give kids a physical boost during the day, but a cognitive one as well, said Dr. Robert Murray, a pediatrician and professor of human nutrition at Ohio State University and co-author of a new policy statement on the subject, published recently in the journal Pediatrics.

While the new statement does not get into specifics — such as the number or length of breaks students should get in a day — the overarching message is that play is essential. Yet, only three states — Delaware, Virginia and Nebraska — require 20 minutes of elementary school recess a day. We had Murray shed light on the latest findings. Here is an edited transcript:

Q: Why do kids need downtime between academic time?

A: Everyone needs time interspersed with cognitive activity to process what they've learned. For kids, it's especially important if you want to get the most productivity between academic challenges. It's not enough to switch from reading to math. ... You actually need a break. The science shows that you're better able to mentally prepare for the next challenge. Most adults know their attention span wanes after 30 to 40 minutes. We get up, get coffee, talk to a friend. Kids need that time scheduled for them, too, which is why recess is so important.

Q: Why is recess seen as something frivolous?

A: Administrators are all under the gun to squeeze in as much academics as possible. But the science says that if you eliminate recess and free play, principals and others are taking away one of their best allies. If we want them to do well, you've got to give kids that break. You just can't keep going and be optimally productive.

Q: Is this just a consideration for younger kids?

A: It's important for both middle and high school students, too, but they get more of a natural break moving between classes. With elementary school students, that's not the case, so it actually has to be thought about and scheduled, so they can step away from a concentrated academic endeavor, decompress and come back for the next one.

Q: Taking more time out of the day doesn't sound like a strategy to be competitive. Aren't we falling behind China and India?

A: The (American Academy of Pediatrics) is not in a position to lecture educators on how to educate, but we feel that the science accumulated in the last 20 years is very clear. ... Just as being well-rested and well-fed plays a role in learning, so does this recess piece. This should be the child's time ... and not taken away for academic or disciplinary reasons. If you want to train an athlete to perform optimally, you know it's best not to work them out at full capacity, seven days a week. It's no different with academics.

Q: Are there other benefits?

A: We saw tremendous social and emotional learning going on during recess. How to interact, compromise mediate conflict, play within rules and be creative. When kids do that on their own, they get a huge infusion of life skills — and ones we value immensely. And if you don't get that during recess, there aren't too many other places to get it.

Q: What about kids who attend schools in dangerous neighborhoods or without playground equipment?

A: The first consideration has to be safety — and that includes equipment. But one thing we were struck by is that equipment does not have to be fancy. ... Give kids a rubber ball and paint some squares on the ground and you're good. Also, whether recess is indoors, outdoors, structured or unstructured play, it needs to be well-supervised by trained individuals who take their jobs seriously.

Q: So what should parents do if they want to advocate for recess?

A: Talk to your teacher, principal or wellness council. This is a very grass-roots issue ... so that's where you make the change.

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