Ask Reading Kingdom: Why is recess so important for students?

As is well-known, competitive pressures in the United States are enormous.  Children encounter these forces early on as parents aim for their offspring to be the “best and the brightest.” In pursuit of these goals, schools have increased instructional time in the content areas—often at the expense of recess, physical education, and many other forms of movement breaks and activities.

Unfortunately, this has had many negative repercussions. For a start, parents report that after school days with minimal physical activity, children return home bursting with uncontrolled energy that makes daily life difficult and homework even more so.

These are not the only problems. There is a growing information base showing that human beings should not sit for long periods. Research has linked extensive sitting with a number of health concerns, including obesity and metabolic syndrome. We should be thinking of ways to enable children to move—as opposed to confining them to desks and tables. Recess is one answer to these problems, as are a host of other possibilities such as expanded physical education, classes that involve movement such as theater and public speaking, desks that are designed to permit standing, etc.

Recess also has positive effects on learning. In cognitive psychology, there is a process known as consolidation that has been recognized for millennia. The Roman teacher Quintillian noted the “curious fact… that the interval of a single night will greatly increase the strength of the memory,” and presented the possibility that “… the power of recollection .. undergoes a process of ripening and maturing during the time which intervenes.” Since then, our knowledge of the different types of consolidation has expanded and covers a range of issues that extend far beyond what can be covered here. The key factor for our purposes is that after learning, time away from the task is beneficial, allowing memory traces to become set in the mind. So rather than going from one subject to another, children should have the opportunity for the time their brains need to do the work to strengthen the learning. This suggests that recess time, rather than being reduced, should be expanded to more periods each day.

Of course, it is not just recess time that needs to be considered in terms of enhancing children’s lives. In France, for example, French kids get between one and a half and two hours for lunch.  It is expected that they spend a minimum of 30 minutes eating followed by least an hour to play.

School work is vital, but there is no need to think solely in terms of expanding the time devoted to that work. There is, in fact, great benefit from not doing so. Years ago, when proverbs were popular, common sense wisdom captured the ideas of a balanced learning situation via the saying that “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.”  We would do well to heed this adage.

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