Success in the classroom has always been in part dependent on factors outside the school, but a recent study suggests that recess is important to academic achievement. This data shows Grade 3 kids who get more than 15 minutes of recess per day are better behaved in the classroom. In turn, less fidgeting and more attentiveness translates into better grades.
"Kids are not designed by mother nature to sit for long stretches of time. Recess lets them burn off energy," says Peter Chaban, teacher, researcher, and head of the School Liaison Team, Community Health Systems Resource Group at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids). "Studies have shown if you teach kids in short blocks of time with variety, they learn better. This works for reading acquisition."
Chaban says teachers have known this intuitively for years. "When kids realise they will not be going outside because of weather or scheduling, or for disciplinary reasons, the teacher knows it's not going to be a good day."
Structured and unstructured time
Although the study shows improved classroom behaviour with a minimum of daily recess time, exactly what it is about recess that produces this effect is less well understood. However, many, including Chaban, believe the issue has to do with unstructured time as opposed to the structured time of the classroom.
"Recess offers kids the opportunity to develop social skills, express themselves freely, and practice language. This unstructured time allows for creative play and lets kids be more imaginative," he says. But the break from all the structure itself is also important. "If you are doing something over and over that you don't enjoy, at some point you will cut off or disengage. If the activity is broken up there is less chance of disengagement."
That this is true is something understood by most in the working world. "We would never treat an adult this way. Office workers get up, go chat with others at the cooler," says Chaban. "Good bosses know these breaks are important to productivity." The news does not seem to have reached parents, teachers, and other interested parties: citing University of Michigan data, the study noted that since the late 1970s, children have lost 12 hours per week of free time, including a 50% decrease in unstructured outdoor activities.
Work instead of recess: "Ironic and counter-productive"
Another finding from the study is that the children who could benefit most from recess are the ones least likely to get enough. "It's the kids who are struggling academically - their recess is often used for extra tutoring or work completion. Unfortunately, that may backfire," says Chaban, adding that substituting recess for more work is "ironic and counter-productive."
And it is not just those struggling academically who are likely to be denied recess. The researchers also found that in the United States, children from low-income homes had less scheduled recess time than other groups of students. The study noted that this was particularly concerning since many of these students were not free to roam their own neighbourhoods and backyards without being accompanied by an adult because of safety issues.
The negative effects of a lack of recess are not restricted to academic achievement: numerous studies have shown that physically inactive children tend to grow up to become physically inactive adults.