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  • Recess: The Benefits of Physical Activity in School

There’s no denying that recess plays a crucial role in a child’s life. Regularly scheduled recess time within an elementary school day is incredibly important for a child’s cognitive, emotional, physical, and social well-being. This dedicated time for unstructured physical activity and play allows children time to rest, play, imagine, think, move, and socialize. After recess, children are more attentive and better able to perform cognitively according to an American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) 2013 policy statement on The Crucial Role of Recess in School.

Multiple studies have shown that, when children have at least 20 minutes of recess—the recommended time from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—they become more attentive and productive in class. Research has also proven play can help children develop communication skills, such as problem-solving and cooperation. It has also shown to help with coping skills, such as self-control and determination. Children more often have stronger levels of executive functioning, such as time management and decision-making skills when engaged in free play and other unstructured activities as well.

Recess should be considered a child’s personal time to be a kid, and it should not be withheld for academic or punitive reasons, and ultimately scaled back or cut altogether. When recess is eliminated or reduced, it is often because a school is allocating more time to subjects covered on standardized tests, aiming to improve student achievement. But a 2010 report by the CDC found positive associations between recess and academic performance. “There is substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores,” the report said.

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Alarmingly, about two thirds of principals report taking away recess as punishment for behavior problems or not finishing work, according to “The State of Play” 2009 survey by Gallup for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “It’s the kids who have trouble concentrating that need recess more than anybody else — and they are the ones less likely to get it,” says Olga Jarrett, a leading researcher on recess and an associate professor of early childhood education at Georgia State University.

About 11 percent of states and 57 percent of districts require elementary schools to provide students with regularly scheduled recess, a study by the Centers for Disease Control in 2006 shows. This is up from 4 percent of states and 46 percent of districts in 2000.  Although not mandated, 79 percent of elementary schools in the CDC survey said they provided daily recess. In 2000, it was 71 percent.

At Chesapeake Bay Academy, our lower school participates in regularly scheduled recess daily in addition to physical education. Recess serves as a necessary break from the rigors of concentrated, academic instruction in the classroom for our students. Children are developing lifelong skills acquired for communication, negotiation, cooperation, sharing, problem solving, and coping, in addition to providing an opportunity for children to be active in the mode of their choosing and to practice movement and motor skills. Importantly, recess affords our youngest children free activity for the sheer joy of it.