Recess Revisited: Playtime Can Bring Academic Success

Recess Revisited: Playtime Can Bring Academic Success

School districts seeking a fairly simple way to boost achievement might want to look outside their classroom doors by adding more recess time to the school day. Sure, it may be fun for the kids, but as a growing body of research suggests, it also makes students better able to absorb and process important academic lessons. The Centers for Disease Control weighed in on the topic, arguing that there is “substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement” when it comes to both coursework and standardized test scores.

Many pro-recess advocates are looking to Eagle Mountain Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas, for further evidence of the benefits of recess. Administrators there expanded recess threefold, adding several 15-minute breaks to the school day for young students. These breaks are built around actual recess time, during which kids take to the playground—rain or shine—for a round of unstructured playtime. Getting outside is key, according to kinesiology professor Deborah Rhea, who spearheaded the “more recess” movement currently underway at Eagle Mountain.

That’s because “fresh air, natural light, and vivid colors all have a big impact on the brain and its function,” Rhea said. Research conducted by the professor and others has indicated that this translates into improved performance in the classroom. Rhea told the health and physical education advocacy group SHAPE America that moving, playing, and interacting with peers “not only helps break up the day,” it also allows students to “apply what is taught in the classroom to a play environment where the mind-body connection can flourish.” According to Eagle Mountain principal Brian McLain, the results so far have been quite impressive.

What do these “impressive” results look like? It may be tough to directly tie recess to a bump in student test scores, yet other less tangible benefits have been documented. Studies have shown that allowing students to “refocus and refresh” through recess and free play helps them become “more productive and attentive” in the classroom, according to Sarah Lifsey, a policy associate who focuses on health. A recent study from Denmark, however, did find a “striking” connection between breaks given to students and their performance on standardized tests.

New brain-based research is certainly helping policymakers like Lifsey and Rhea make a strong case for increasing recess and physical activity as a way to improve students’ academic skills. The New York Times’s Editorial Board advocated for more recess and exercise for students and less “sedentary classroom instruction.” Citing a study by the Institute of Medicine, the Times’s editorial writers argued that “active children” often do better in school, “especially in reading and mathematics.”

The Institute of Medicine study also found that students who get at least 60 minutes of daily physical activity (including recess) do better with “soft skills” such as self-regulation and problem-solving. There’s a caveat, though. A survey of school principals by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation made it clear that not all recess is good recess. Although most principals reported that students “listened better and were more focused” after recess, they also cautioned that “most discipline problems happen at recess.”

As a solution, principals expressed a need for more staff, more training, and “better equipment” at recess. Further studies show that “investing in recess” is a key part of making this time successful, especially at schools that “struggle with managing student behavior.” These investments can include partnering with organizations such as Playworks that provide constructive recess support to keep playtime safe and students ready to learn. The bottom line is there are many factors that contribute to overall academic achievement, and the benefits of recess with physical activity should not be overlooked! 

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