Well before winter break started this year, the students who I met in August — most of them easily able to sit at their desks and listen or work quietly for long stretches of time — turned into antsy teenagers, some of whom make a habit of getting up to walk slowly to the trash can in the middle of a lecture or who make excuses to get passes to the bathroom during group work.
Many of my coworkers attribute this to the students simply being bored of school and ready for a break, but I have always thought that, once the cool, fall air turns to cold, dark winter, students’ energy levels in the classroom skyrocket due to the lack of time they are able to spend outside, playing basketball or walking around the block with their friends. The time they spent outside during the nice weather allowed them to burn off some pent up energy, as well as take a much-needed mental break from the rigors of school and homework. When winter hits, though, my students often don’t get their change of scenery and can’t spend as much time outside, making them balls of energy in my classroom.
My teaching definitely changes in the winter months to incorporate more hands-on and out-of-your-seat learning activities, but there is only so much I can do within the confines of my classroom. Students need unstructured, outdoor time not only to burn off energy, but also to just take a break between high-stress, mental tasks. During the winter, especially in high school where the only physical activity students get during the school day is a highly structured physical education class, these breaks are few and far between, and it shows in their performance in the classroom.
It’s no surprise, then, that the American Academy of Pediatrics has just released a study saying that recess — unstructured, outdoor play during the school day — is just as important to student achievement as reading or math class. According to an interview in TIME Magazine, Dr. Robert Murray, a pediatrician and professor of human nutrition at the Ohio State University, says, “Children need to have downtime between complex cognitive challenges… They tend to be less able to process information the longer they are held to a task. It’s not enough to just switch from math to English. You actually have to take a break.” This is important for younger students, but becomes increasingly apparent at the high school level where students’ only breaks come in the form of five-minute passing periods between classes and a break for lunch.
Unfortunately, only six states — Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Mississippi, and North Carolina — give children 150 minutes of recess a week, a guideline set by the National Association for Sports and Physical Education. Furthermore, only three additional states — Delaware, Nebraska, and Virginia — give students 20 minutes of recess a day. We have long understood that recess is vital in combatting childhood obesity, but now we are finding that recess can help increase student performance in the classroom, as well.
With the benefits of recess being so high, why are schools taking it away? It seems it is not as simple as a cost-benefit scenario. With fewer resources being allocated to schools and higher pressure for success on standardized tests, recess seems to be the most natural cut to make. Often, schools cannot afford to staff the necessary supervisors, and some schools are even facing such extreme cuts that their school days have to be shortened, making it necessary to cut out a portion of the day. When faced with cutting a class or unstructured play time, the play time usually is the first to go. Furthermore, with such pressure on schools to improve on test scores, it would seem logical to dedicate more time to classroom activities such as reading and math.
While the best case scenario would be for a school to offer recess, if that is not an option, parents can help at home by allowing their children unstructured time before starting to work on homework and allowing for breaks between long studying sessions. This can help students retain information better than immediately sitting at the table to work on homework as soon as they walk in the door from school. Parents can also petition their local school districts to add recess back into the curriculum, and now they have the research to back them up.
Photo Credit: dmitrybarsky