Standing Up for Recess

The headline of a recent national news story caught my attention – it read, “The battle over school recess.” The story profiles what seems to be an increasingly common issue – schools faced with pressures to increase test scores are tempted to reduce or eliminate recess altogether to spend more time focusing on the “Three Rs”: reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic. Understandable? Sure. This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve heard the importance of recess being called into question. But every time I hear eliminating recess proposed, it makes me want to start jumping up and down to get people’s attention. Because given what we now know about the importance of both physical activity and play to our children’s future well-being, it doesn’t make sense to sacrifice either. Here’s why:

Healthy habits form early. In what seems like the ultimate case of stating the obvious, let me first point out that healthy habits – including getting up, running around and being physically active – start very early in life. So do less desirable ones like, say, sitting around all day not moving. With the childhood (and adult) obesity epidemics looming large, and with sitting now proclaimed “the new smoking” of our time (thanks in part to a TED talk given by Nilofer Merchant), never has it been more important to encourage our children to be active early and often. 

Active minds are fueled by active bodies. And creativity and physical activity often skip hand in hand. These concepts are proving to be more than just catchy phrases. In his book “Innovator’s DNA,”Clay Christensen even makes the point that one of the key traits innovative thinkers tend to have in common (for those of you who strive to raise future innovative thinkers) is that they actually have a need to be physically active.

While children’s core cognitive skills like reading, writing and math are unquestionably important, we’ve learned a whole lot more about how to best teach them. Children don’t need to sit still to learn, and it is becoming convincingly and intriguingly clear that physical activity itself actually positively affects cognitive as well as physical abilities. Consider the task of teaching preschoolers – an age group which, I’m sure you’ll agree, can be quite challenging to get to sit still. Early math skills can be cultivated anywhere from the kitchen to the garden, and from preschool story time to the playground. 

Play is actually the work of young children. Not only does engaging in play – including run-around-on-the-playground play – unquestionably offer health benefits, but it also allows children to interact with each other and learn critical social, communication and collaboration skills. These are, by the way, considered the most valuable skills in the 21st century. In fact, in what seems like an ironic twist, just as the world of education tries to do away with institutionalized play time in the form of recess, the world of business is actively working to find ways to reinstate play and physical activity in the workplace (think treadmill desks and walking meetings) as a way to better foster these skills and improve productivity. 

Shortly after hearing the recent news story about the proposed recess cuts, I also came across an article in the Los Angeles Times with the headline, “Even for the active, a long sit shortens life and erodes health.” All one needs to do is put the two headlines together, and the message becomes far too clear and compelling to ignore. For our children’s lifelong health and future success, we need to make sure they are given the opportunity and encouraged, from early childhood and throughout life, to move more rather than less. And that means we, as parents, should all be jumping up and down together (and, of course, with our children) to make sure it happens.

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About the Author

Dr. Laura Jana is a pediatrician, Director of Innovation at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and award-winning parenting and children’s book author. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Michigan, an MD from Case Western Reserve, and is the founder of Practical Parenting Consulting and Amazing Me Books. She focuses on early childhood, and is a media spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Jana lives in Nebraska with her husband and 3 children.