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What happens when we don’t make time for recess?

While physical activity has obvious long-term benefits, research shows its value in the classroom, too.
Wed Jun 27, 2018

June 27, 2018

By Matt Watson

At Red Hawk Elementary School in Erie, all 800-something students take a break every morning to do a schoolwide physical activity or game. It can be as simple as walking just to get kids moving and pulses elevated.

But while walking itself is simple, a school allotting time for its students to participate in physical activity is a much more complex issue. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that only 4 percent of elementary schools in the United States provide daily physical education for all of their students. Just 8 percent of middle schools and 2 percent of high schools do the same, despite research from the same report demonstrating “substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores.”

Many schools provide P.E. but rotate it with subjects such as art and music, while other schools trim time for lunch and recess to cram more academic instruction into the day.

“Some students get physical activity once every three or four weeks, and that’s not enough activity. That’s not enough time to help with an obesity epidemic,” said Nhu Nguyen, a professor of K-12 physical education at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

The CDC estimates that nearly 1 in every 5 people ages 6 to 19 is obese in the United States, a frequency that has more than tripled over the past half-century. Nguyen believes physical education is important because people can’t carry on other aspects of their lives without good health.

“Our goal is to create good movers who have knowledge of movement and how to stay active for their lifespan. We really believe in educating the whole child – not just being physically active but engaging the mind and the body,” Nguyen said.

Black and white photo from the bottom of a slide

The case for recess

P.E. and recess aren’t the same thing. Physical education has deliberate objectives within psychomotor, cognitive or affective domains, while recess is less structured, more social – and no less important.

“Recess, after school and before school are the only times kids really get to socialize in school. A primary thing students learn in school is not just schooling – it’s also how to get along with others,” Nguyen said. “They say we need more time for academics, and some of the rationale is students fight too much on the playground, but that’s not a good enough rationale. That means you’re not doing your job somewhere else in teaching those skills such as conflict management.”

Playworks is a nonprofit that partners with elementary schools to prioritize play and make sure safe and healthy play is happening during recess and after-school programs. The organization influences 60,000 children per year in Colorado through different services it offers, which include training school staff on methodologies of play or even hiring a full-time employee to manage recess, after-school programs, before-school programs and class game times.

“What we find is when play is leveraged, overall school climate is being transformed. We eliminate recess chaos, reduce bullying, create opportunities for physical activity and really focus on social-emotional development,” said Playworks development associate Jessica Montoya. “We’re helping teachers get valuable class time back because we’re introducing positive transitions and conflict resolution tools to get the kids ready for class time. They’re more focused and more engaged, so it’s a win-win for all.”

black and white photo of a set of swings with the Rocky Mountains in background

An integrated education

When physical education and recess are reduced, movement in the classroom becomes much more important.

In addition to direct services, Playworks maintains an online library of hundreds of games sortable by group size, available space and equipment, ages and more, for teachers or others to incorporate play into schools.

Nguyen advocates for so-called “brain breaks” every 15 to 30 minutes in classrooms, which could be playing a quick game or just standing up to take a breath or stretch.

“If there is a next-best thing (to P.E. or recess), elementary kids have to be able to move. To have an unrealistic expectation for students to sit still and have academics thrown at them all day long without being able to move isn’t natural for a child,” Nguyen said. “There’s only so much students can actually absorb in small amounts of time.”

Integrating subjects, such as incorporating movement into math class, technology into physical education or history into literacy, helps reinforce what students learn across classes and outside of school.

In Nguyen’s classes, students integrate math, technology and/or literacy into their physical-education lessons. That could mean calculating the optimal angle and velocity needed to kick a soccer ball, teaching breakdancing with video technology or teaching a new sport with new terminology and rules.

“We’ve become so compartmentalized, and I see it with my own children: ‘This is math; this is what you do in math.’ We forget that life isn’t compartmentalized like that,” Nguyen said. “Watching games is not just science; we learn it is often about politics, often about human interaction and other things, too. You need a holistic view on education.”

Elizabeth Hinde, dean of the MSU Denver School of Education, describes in “Becoming Integrated Thinkers: Case Studies in Elementary Social Studies” how integrating social studies into other subjects has long-term benefits for students, such as improved reading comprehension and more informed citizenship. She co-edited the piece for the National Council for the Social Studies.

“Accountability on test scores has siloed the curriculum, when the curriculum should be integrated throughout,” Hinde said. “The knowledge, skills and dispositions that you get from the curriculum should be integrated so students are making connections between what they’re learning and their lives outside of a classroom.”