Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Policy Point Wednesday: Recess - Redundant?

When it comes to lifestyle-related disease, there are three major factors to control for: diet, substance use and physical activity.   Many of us remember growing up with a focus on substance abuse;  in recent years, our American diet has come under scrutiny.  News and studies are now starting to turn towards physical activity.

Not all physical activity is the same, however.  For instance, in school -  while P.E. classes play an important role in helping children become healthy adults, studies are showing that P.E. is not a replacement for unstructured playtime.  Recess, which was available in 90% of schools twenty years ago, is fast becoming a scarce commodity.  School districts focused on improving test scores have opted for additional instructional time instead of giving students the chance to get outside and move, disproportionately more so in disadvantaged communities.

This flies in the face of research showing that kids who play do better academically. Researchers have linked recess to students who are better-adjusted to school and show better school performance. Recess has been shown to improve classroom behavior during instructional time. Beyond the benefits in school, recess allows each child to explore physical activities at his or her own pace and find out which ones work best - which can motivate them to become an active adult.

Some schools and parents have legitimate concerns about recess safety: bullying and accidents are both possible outcomes of unstructured play.  It is important to note that unstructured playtime does not mean unsupervised playtime.  Training playground staff in proactive supervision is a critical step in preserving the benefits of recess.  There are numerous systems for schools to ensure that their students receive the full benefit of recess while maintaining a sense of school security.    While recess is a time for unstructured play, it requires a safe environment both physically and socially for children to thrive: a 2010 study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that the single best way to improve recess is to improve recess staffing.

In short, appropriate recess is a precious commodity and should be supported by parents and educators alike.  Not only is it a gateway to a lifetime of physical activity, but it is also a tool for improving the social, developmental, and academic climate at a school.

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