Tuesday, October 8, 2013

This fall, when parents of children returning to District of Columbia schools discovered that recess had been cut to 15 minutes a day for elementary schools, they protested, citing the importance of free play and activity for child development.

The schools, pressed for time, were only able to carve out an additional 5 minutes for recess.[1]

This same scenario has played across the nation as schools shorten recess, cut physical education, and eliminate other activities to make room for academics and standardized tests.[2] According to research conducted by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, in 2012 less than a fifth of states (17.6%) required elementary schools to provide a daily recess.[3] Another 18% recommended daily recess as of the 2008–2009 school year, but they did not require it. Children in groups who are more at risk for obesity and obesity-related health problems later in life—children in low-income areas, children in urban areas, children in the Southeastern U.S., and children in minority areas—are less likely to have recess than their peers.[4],[5]

Cutting recess should be a concern of parents. Recess is strongly recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Association for Sports and Physical Education, and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has stated that recess is unique from structured physical education and is a necessary part of child development.[6] ,[7] New research in the fields of child development and physical activity has revealed the importance of this period of socialization and play to those eager to eliminate it in favor of academics. The benefits of recess include:

  • Cognitive and academic benefits. Unstructured free time gives children a chance to refocus and refresh between more structured learning activities. It been shown in several studies that children who are allowed this kind of break are more attentive and productive in the classroom.[8],[9] A groundbreaking study using the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study data set found that children age 8 to 9 who received a daily recess of 15 minutes or more had better behavior (as assessed by teachers) than did peers who received fewer than 15 minutes of recess.[10],[11]
  • Social and emotional benefits. Recess is a time for children to experiment with social interactions with their peers and practice skills like conflict resolution, negotiation, self-control, and cooperation. Traditionally, recess is a time when children are able to choose their activities, socialize in their desired groups, and negotiate the structure and rules of games and activities.[12],[13]
  • Physical benefits. The benefits of physical activity for children are well-established in the literature, but fewer than half of children ages 6 to 11 meet the U.S. Surgeon General’s recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day.[14] Reductions in available recreation time in schools, including recess, is cited in the newly released F as in Fat report as a contributor to childhood obesity.[15] The AAP notes that even though not all children are vigorously active at recess, the provision of unstructured play does “provide the opportunity for children to be active in the mode of their choosing” and, importantly, “affords young children free activity for the sheer joy of it.”[16]

Given the importance of recess, what kind of recess should people advocate for and how can recess be conducted to maximize benefits to growing youth? A recent development in recess research and advocacy is the advent of structured recess, where children are taught games and physical activities by trained coaches during recess.[17] These programs grew out of observations that during recess some children choose to play quietly, or socialize, rather than play vigorously. This is particularly true for girls and younger children.[18],[19],[20]

In addition, recess and other unstructured time can be a magnet for social exclusion, bullying, and behavioral problems.[21] A 2010 Gallup poll of elementary school principals found that the majority of discipline problems occur during recess or lunch.[22] For proponents of structured recess, using coaches to organize and lead vigorous activity helps ensure that recess is part of the recommended 60 minutes of activity daily for more children and helps children learn how to handle conflict. There is strong evidence that these programs do increase physical activity and do reduce behavioral problems.[23]

Playworks is perhaps the best known and most vigorously evaluated of these programs. Playworks places full-time coaches in low-income schools to organize play during recess and during other times. Playworks games and activities are designed with a dual purpose, to both encourage vigorous physical activity and to foster cooperative social skills. A rigorous evaluation lead by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Mathematica Policy Research, and the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University found significant promising impacts of this program, including a noted reduction in bullying and exclusionary behavior during recess and increases in positive behaviors and readiness to learn in the classroom, as reported by teachers.[24] A large study using data from the California Healthy Kids survey Resilience and Youth Development Model found that greater exposure to the Playworks program was associated with more physical activity and higher scores on measures of well-being and resilience, including participation in school, setting goals and aspirations, and problem-solving skills.[25]

An observation-based evaluation of the Recess Enhancement Program, a similar New York City-based program, found an increase in the rate of vigorous physical activity. This evaluation additionally found that teachers at the schools where the program was provided would lead children in the activities and games even without a trained coach present, indicating that the program provided a lasting impact on culture of recess at these schools.[26]

Although structured recess is a research-tested practice with promising results, critics note that too much structure in recess risks removing the child’s choice from the equation, and it may result in a trade-off between vigorous physical activity and the social and emotional benefits of free play.[27],,[28] Schools implementing structured recess need to balance the need for vigorous activity and a playground with fewer discipline problems with the developmentally important benefits of free play.

Structured recess requires trained coaches to implement and may be out of reach for many school districts around the country. Other strategies for improving recess include:

  • Recess before lunch. The “Recess before lunch” movement, a promising practice supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is based on studies that show that children who have recess first eat more lunch food and have improved behavior at lunch that lasts into the afternoon classes.[29] Traditionally, children are released to recess when they have finished their lunches, resulting in children choosing between eating and playing. Preliminary evidence from Montana schools, where nearly half of the state’s schools had moved recess to before lunch in 2011, indicates that this  practice may result in fewer behavior issues and greater consumption of fruits, vegetables, milk, and main courses.[30]
  • Recess Activity of the Week. Recess Activity of Week interventions, where novel physical activities, such as obstacle courses, are offered as a choice during recess each week, has shown some promising results. Pedometer measures found that some activities, such as the obstacle course, did attract more physical activity, while others, such as the Frisbee, did not. In addition, male children were more active during the obstacle course than female children, and younger children were less active than older children, indicating a need for activities that are attractive to both boys and girls and developmentally appropriate for different age and ability levels.[31]
  • Providing appropriate play space and equipment. While research is more limited on this topic, some studies show that providing students with low-cost equipment such as jump ropes, bean bags, and balls increased the amount of time spent in moderate to vigorous physical activity.[32] Painting playground surfaces with four square grids, hopscotch grids, and mazes is another promising and low-cost practice.[33] Providing “recess packs,” which included jump ropes, sport balls, and boundary cones led North Carolina schools to several desirable outcomes, including more physical activity by girls and more involvement in recess games by teachers.[34] An evaluation of Ready for Recess, a program that provides staff training and recreational equipment, found increases in moderate and vigorous physical activity regardless of gender or ethnicity.[35]
  • School policies requiring recess. Research results are mixed on whether policies requiring or recommending recess actually increase the amount of recess provided. A study of school policies related to weekly physical education and recess found few significant associations between either school or district-level physical education policies and minutes of recess time or physical education time provided.[36] Another study found that having state- and district-level policies related to physical education did increase provided minutes of physical education but did not find strong correlations for recess.[37] Both of these studies bolstered previous studies that indicate that physical education and recess time are drawn from the same allocated time and that there is often an inverse association between the two—in other words, schools that provide more PE will provide less recess, and vice versa.

The outcry by District of Columbia area parents shows that recess is considered an important part of the school day by communities. However, schools facing pressure to increase the time devoted to academics and standardized testing find it easy to carve away at this time. Research that shows how important recess is to children’s development, physical health, and behavioral health is needed to convince stakeholders that this “free time” isn’t wasted time. Promising practices, from intensive, structured recess interventions to low-cost equipment, can help ensure that children get the most out of this valuable part of the day.

 

[1] Brown. E. (2013, August 30). D.C. parents push for more recess. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-08-30/local/41600378_1_montgomer....

[2] Slater, S., Nicholson, L., Chriqui, J., Turner, L., & Chaloupka, F. (2012). The impact of state laws and district policies on physical education and recess practices in a nationally representative sample of US public elementary schools. Archives Of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 166(4), 311-316. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2011.1133

[3] National Association for Sport and Physical Education & American Heart Association. (2012). 2012 Shape of the Nation Report: Status of Physical Education in the USA. Reston, VA: American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance. Retrieved 9/18/2013 from http://www.aahperd.org/naspe/publications/upload/2012-Shape-of-Nation-fu...

[4] Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Active Living Research. (2012). Increasing Physical Activity Through Recess. Research Brief. San Diego, CA: Active Living Research. Retrieved 9/18/2013 from http://www.playworks.org/files/ALR_Brief_Recess.pdf

[5] Slater, S., Nicholson, L., Chriqui, J., Turner, L., & Chaloupka, F. (2012). The impact of state laws and district policies on physical education and recess practices in a nationally representative sample of US public elementary schools. Archives Of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 166(4), 311-316. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2011.1133

[6] Ramstetter, C. L., Murray, R., & Garner, A. S. (2010). The Crucial Role of Recess in Schools. Journal Of School Health, 80(11), 517-526.

[7] Murray, R. & Ramstetter, C. (2012). The crucial role of recess in school. Pediatrics, 13(1): 183 -188.

[8] Murray, R. & Ramstetter, C. (2012). The crucial role of recess in school. Pediatrics, 13(1): 183 -188.

[9] Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (2010). The State of Play: Gallup Survey of Principals on School Recess. San Francisco, CA: FENTON Communications. Retrieved 9/18/2013 from http://www.playworks.org/files/StateOfPlayFeb2010.pdf

[10] Barros, R.M., Silver, E.J., and Stein, R.E.K., (2009). School recess and group classroom behavior. Pediatrics, 12(2): 431-436.

[11] National Association for Sports and Physical Education. (n.d.). NASPE Resource Brief – Recess. Reston, VA: National Association for Sports and Physical Education. Retrieved 9/19/2013 from http://www.aahperd.org/naspe/publications/upload/Recess.pdf

[12] Murray, R. & Ramstetter, C. (2012). The crucial role of recess in school. Pediatrics, 13(1): 183 -188.

[13] Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (2010). The State of Play: Gallup Survey of Principals on School Recess. San Francisco, CA: FENTON Communications. Retrieved 9/18/2013 from http://www.playworks.org/files/StateOfPlayFeb2010.pdf

[14] Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Active Living Research. (2012). Increasing Physical Activity Through Recess. Research Brief. San Diego, CA: Active Living Research. Retrieved 9/18/2013 from http://www.playworks.org/files/ALR_Brief_Recess.pdf

[15] Levi, J., Segal, L.M., Thomas, K., St. Laurent, R., Lang, A., and Rayburn, J. (2013). F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future. Washington, DC: Trust for America’s Health. Retrieved 9/18/2013 from http://healthyamericans.org/assets/files/TFAH2013FasInFatReportFinal%209.9.pdf

[16] Murray, R. & Ramstetter, C. (2012). The crucial role of recess in school. Pediatrics, 13(1): 183 -188, p. 184.

[17] Hu, W. (2010, March 14). Forget Goofing Around: Recess Has a New Boss. The New York Times. Retrieved 9/20/2013 from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/15/education/15recess.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[18] Stellino, M., Sinclair, C., Partridge, J., & King, K. (2010). Differences in children's recess physical activity: recess activity of the week intervention. The Journal Of School Health, 80(9), 436-444.

[19] Chin, J. (2013). Increasing Children's Physical Activity During School Recess Periods. American Journal Of Public Health, 103(7), 1229-1234.

[20] Ridgers, N. D., Fairclough, S. J., & Stratton, G. (2010). Variables associated with children's physical activity levels during recess: the A-CLASS project. International Journal Of Behavioral Nutrition & Physical Activity, 774-81

[21] Hu, W. (2010, March 14). Forget Goofing Around: Recess Has a New Boss. The New York Times. Retrieved 9/20/2013 from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/15/education/15recess.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[22] Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (2010). The State of Play: Gallup Survey of Principals on School Recess. San Francisco, CA: FENTON Communications. Retrieved 9/18/2013 from http://www.playworks.org/files/StateOfPlayFeb2010.pdf

[23] Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. (2013). County Health Rankings & Roadmaps: Structured recess. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. Retrieved 9/20/2013 from http://www.countyhealthrankings.org/policies/structured-recess

[24] Bleeker, M., James-Burdumy, S., Beyler, N., London, R.A., Westrich, L., Stokes-Guinan, K., & Castrechini, S., (2012). Findings from a Randomized Experiment of Playworks: Selected Results from Cohort 1. Princeton, NJ: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Retrieved 9/13/2013 from http://www.rwjf.org/content/dam/farm/reports/reports/2012/rwjf72623

[25] MADSEN, K. (2011). Physical Activity and Positive Youth Development: Impact of a School-Based Program. Journal Of School Health, 81(8), 462-470.

[26] Chin, J. (2013). Increasing Children's Physical Activity During School Recess Periods. American Journal Of Public Health, 103(7), 1229-1234.

[27] Murray, R. & Ramstetter, C. (2012). The crucial role of recess in school. Pediatrics, 13(1): 183 -188.

[28] Hu, W. (2010, March 14). Forget Goofing Around: Recess Has a New Boss. The New York Times. Retrieved 9/20/2013 from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/15/education/15recess.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[29] Murray, R. & Ramstetter, C. (2012). The crucial role of recess in school. Pediatrics, 13(1): 183 -188.

[30] PATT, M. (2011). Starving for RECESS. District Administration, 47(5), 66-70.

[31] Stellino, M., Sinclair, C., Partridge, J., & King, K. (2010). Differences in children's recess physical activity: recess activity of the week intervention. The Journal Of School Health, 80(9), 436-444.

[32] Ridgers, N. D., Fairclough, S. J., & Stratton, G. (2010). Variables associated with children's physical activity levels during recess: the A-CLASS project. International Journal Of Behavioral Nutrition & Physical Activity, 774-81.

[33] Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Active Living Research. (2012). Increasing Physical Activity Through Recess. Research Brief. San Diego, CA: Active Living Research. Retrieved 9/18/2013 from http://www.playworks.org/files/ALR_Brief_Recess.pdf

[34] Elliott, S., Combs, S., & Boyce, R. (2011). Recess Physical Activity Packs in Elementary Schools: A Qualitative Investigation. Physical Educator, 68(3), 150-162.

[35] Siahpush, M., Huberty, J., & Beighle, A. (2012). Does the effect of a school recess intervention on physical activity vary by gender or race? Results from the Ready for Recess pilot study. Journal Of Public Health Management And Practice: JPHMP, 18(5), 416-422. doi:10.1097/PHH.0b013e318226ca47

[36] Lounsbery, M. (2013). District and School Physical Education Policies: Implications for Physical Education and Recess Time. Annals Of Behavioral Medicine, 45131-141.

[37] Slater, S., Nicholson, L., Chriqui, J., Turner, L., & Chaloupka, F. (2012). The impact of state laws and district policies on physical education and recess practices in a nationally representative sample of US public elementary schools. Archives Of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 166(4), 311-316. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2011.1133


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