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Why Kids Need Recess and Exercise

By Denene Millner
4/26/2012 12:33:07 PM

More and more researchers, educators and parents are realizing that not only is playground time good for kids-it is crucial. Here's why it just may be the fourth "R" in school, and what you can do to make sure your child gets a healthy dose of downtime.

Let me put this out there: I totally get it. Teachers are under pressure to make sure they've drilled reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic deep into their students' brains--and there are only so many hours in the school day. So if you have to get rid of an "extra" activity to make way for more book time…well, you might as well go for the playtime. After all, school is supposed to be about learning, right? And what mom doesn't want her kid to ace The Test?

Still, I could see the toll it was taking on my daughter Mari, when, two weeks before fourth-grade testing, she dragged herself off the bus and into our kitchen--exhausted, tense, and frazzled. Turns out the only break she'd had during her six-and-a-half-hour school day was for a 22-minute lunch (quiet talking only). Recess had been "suspended" for two weeks so the teachers could get in extra test prep--and by this point Mari hadn't seen the monkey bars, bounced across a hopscotch board, or breathed fresh air for days.

She was toast.

And I was fuming.

I mean, prisoners get more time out on the yard than the fourth-graders at my kid's school--and I thought it terribly unfair that my 9-year-old was being denied something as basic as a respite from her classroom. This recess hiatus was a problem. The anecdotal proof was sitting--melting down--before my eyes. And, as it turns out, there is plenty of hard evidence, too. A recent multicenter study of more than 11,000 eight- and nine-year-olds, led by pediatric researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York City, showed that kids who had at least 15 minutes of recess a day (even just 15 minutes!) behaved better in class. According to study author and developmental pediatrician Romina Barros, M.D., their conduct was likely better because, after hours of concentration, they were able to give their exhausted brains a rest before going back to absorbing information--something many young kids can only do well for about a half hour at a time.

Gimme a Break!

Dr. Barros decided to conduct the study after observing a young patient's classroom--to see how antsy the student and his peers were by lunchtime. They were given no work breaks, save for 15 minutes of quiet snacking at their desks.

"They couldn't stand up or walk around, the heat was on in the classroom, and by noon--when it was time for them to go eat--I had a headache," recalls Dr. Barros, who has two daughters of her own, one of whom is now in school. "It took the kids in that class fifteen minutes just to line up. They were fried." Think about it: As adults, we value--in fact, we demand--a little downtime during our workday. "But kids aren't allowed to say 'I need a break,' then get up and leave," Dr. Barros says.

In addition to the mental pause, recess appears to be the most effective way to keep kids active. A study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that 42 percent of the nation's schoolchildren get most of their total daily exercise at recess--more than do so in P.E. or after-school programs. For sure, in light of America's childhood-obesity problem (17 percent of kids between 2 and 19 are obese), participating in recess is one of the few inexpensive, readily available opportunities we have to get kids moving.

What's more, children who don't get recess miss out on valuable life lessons, according to Susan Ohanian, an education advocate and author of What Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children Struggling in Kindergarten? "Anybody who knows anything about children--particularly little kids--knows that they learn so much on the playground: how to get along, negotiate, make and follow each other's rules, talk to one another, and fall down and get back up again," says Ohanian, who, in addition to being an instructor at an alternative high school in Troy, NY, has taught third, seventh, and eighth grade in public schools there. "But for kids these days, lunch is too short, they don't get a chance to talk to anybody, sometimes they can't even get a drink or go to the bathroom--civilized things adults take for granted. It's barbaric."

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