Parents may think playtime would be better invested in academics, but experts say recess is crucial for kids’ development.

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The Downturn in Downtime

Third grade students in public schools get an average of 20 minutes of recess per day, according to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics. Time out is less for urban minority students, and slightly higher for private school pupils. But even those lucky few may not get enough free play.

In Georgia, there’s no daily requirement for recess time in elementary schools or a minimum weekly amount of physical activity for any student, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Individual school districts determine whether to have recess or set aside time for physical education. However, most of the state’s elementary schools have some type of recess, says Therese McGuire, program specialist for health and physical education with the Georgia Department of Education. “I would encourage it because it has so many benefits for kids cognitively, emotionally, academically and socially,” she says.

The department doesn’t collect statewide data on recess in elementary schools, but McGuire says 872 elementary schools out of the state’s 1,272 have signed up with the state Department of Public Health’s Power Up for 30 program and pledged to provide at least 30 minutes a day of activity for grade school kids (see sidebar below).

In and out of school, children’s lives tend to be more structured now than they were a generation ago. Class lessons are mostly teacher-led and after-school hours are consumed by tutoring, music lessons and sports practice – activities often directed by adults.

Good intentions may be to blame. “I think this drive to structure more of children’s time stems from a well-intentioned but ill-founded desire to help children get ahead,” says special educator and licensed psychologist Nicole Beurkens, founder and director of Horizons Developmental Resource Center in Michigan. Recess is restricted when schools are pushed to perform on standardized tests.

Unstructured recess allows kids to rest, play, imagine and move. And that leads to better health, greater happiness and higher grades. Here’s how.

Physical Benefits

Almost 1 in 3 American kids ages 6 to 19 is overweight or obese. Recess can help kids hit the recommended target of 60 minutes of physical activity per day. It also improves their eating habits. Studies show kids who have recess before lunch eat more fruits and vegetables, drink more milk, waste less food, and behave better than those who play after eating. Many schools adopt a “play first, eat later” policy for just this reason.

Exercise builds strong bones, heart and body muscles and decreases risk for coronary artery disease, by lowering blood sugar and fat levels, and by raising artery-cleaning HDL cholesterol. Cholesterol and heart disease are not just adult concerns. A 2015 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found 21 percent of American children have abnormal cholesterol levels that increase their risk for heart disease and stroke in adulthood. Recess gives kids the freedom to choose activities and encourages them to make movement a life-long habit.

Social and Emotional Benefits

Sports activities aren’t the only upside of downtime. Kids connect on the playground.

“Recess gives children the golden opportunity to practice social skills,” says family psychotherapist Fran Walfish, author of The Self-Aware Parent. “When there are already two children playing and a third child wants to join in, there are complicated skills involved in making entry.” The playground is a perfect place to practice joining a group, to share information about yourself, to develop empathy, and to learn how to be a good winner or loser. These skills may be harder to build in the classroom, where teachers orchestrate the activities.

“As adults we may find that going for a walk, working out or playing golf improves ability to manage stress,” Beurkens says. Free play gives kids the same benefits. Fresh air and exercise reduce depression and reinvigorate kids’ spirits. Movement also raises levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, a chemical involved in mood and well-being. This mood boost helps kids de-stress.

Academic Benefits

Unstructured play also makes students smarter. Unpredictable playground problems offer a sort of hands-on “training for the unexpected,” says anthropologist and play advocate Abby Loebenberg, of the Barrett Honors College of Arizona State University.

“Essentially the theory is that as we play we are helping our brains to create neural pathways that we can use to be more creative when faced with an unfamiliar problem [in the future].”

When a ball is stuck in a tree, or a friend is sad because she is left out, your child has to think about how to respond. She tries a possible solution and observes the outcome. If needed, she may try a different approach or seek help from a peer or adult. These real-world problem solving opportunities teach life lessons not covered in the classroom.

Recess quality – not just quantity – counts. Students benefit most when they feel physically and emotionally safe, have positive interactions with peers, receive support for solving conflicts, and have opportunities to participate in activities. Positive playground experiences follow kids back into the classroom. Kids who feel good about school have better attendance, improved attentiveness, and higher achievement across the board.

Give Recess a Redo

In light of these benefits, it may be time to rethink recess. Parents and teachers need to speak up in support of recess, and work with school leaders to make sure playgrounds have adequate staffing and safe (fun!) equipment. Kids need to learn how to re-energize their brains and their bodies so they can focus, learn and achieve. These self-regulation skills are key to living a healthy, happy life.

– Heidi Smith Luedtke

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