WORDS BY CASSIE MILLER
For kids, so much of their elementary years happen on the playground. We all have fond memories of playing kickball, the swings and racing around with our school-aged friends, but for many children today, recess is in peril.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reviewed existing research and found that allotted time for recess was being cut in order to comply with administrative pushes toward more rigorous academic demands.
While research does show that elementary-aged kids who get ahead are more likely to stay ahead, should that come at the expense of the need for cherished playtime?
Licensed Professional Counselor Jason Boes says no. “I would say, it’s not only important, it’s a crucial part of development for children.”
Think of it this way, adults who work in an office setting sit at a desk for most of their eight-hour day. These adults get up and grab a cup of coffee, maybe step outside for some fresh air or go for a short walk with a co-worker during their lunch break. If even disciplined adults can’t sit at a desk for an entire day without the need for a distraction, how can adults ask children to do exactly that?
Add in standardized testing, and the effect is a child who is struggling to focus and cannot answer the demands of his or her teacher.
Fortunately, the first-grade teachers at John C. Kunkel Elementary School in Middletown have found a way to combat this.
By using “brain breaks,” the children are given a “reset button.” Using tools like Go Noodle, a website that facilitates physical activities for the classroom, the teachers at Kunkel Elementary have noticed a positive change in student behavior.
“Go Noodle is a directed dancing routine, and the kids like to do that, too,” says teacher Heidi Ebersole.
Go Noodle also comes at the recommendation of Boes for use by teachers and parents.
Often thought of as expendable, recess was and continues to take a backseat to more idyllic learning situations.
“There’s such a push in schools for academic performance that I think it’s overlooked and often has been since No Child Left Behind,” says Boes.
Even teachers notice a difference in the push for more academic progress in a short amount of time.
“Kindergarten is the new first grade,” says first-grade teacher Jodi Jackson.
First grade is considered a foundation from which students will continue learning to read, write, communicate and form other essential skills. Students are expected to jump six reading levels in first grade. All of these demands make it easy to lose sight of the fact that these are small children.
Additionally, meeting academic demands adds an insurmountable amount of pressure to teachers. The teachers and faculty of Kunkel Elementary are advocates for their students, voicing the importance of recess and breaks to school policy makers. There, students are offered two recesses – one after lunch and another around 2 p.m.
Giving kids the necessary time to play has become a goal for schools like Kunkel Elementary. The first-grade teachers credit their administrators for hearing their input for a second recess and meeting those demands. While the combined time is just 20 minutes, it’s 20 minutes that weren’t previously available to the kids and addresses students’ need for playtime during the school day.
“For many kids, play is a primary language,” states Boes.
Harrisburg Magazine conducted a focus group of five students from a first-grade class at John C. Kunkel Elementary School to hear their opinion on recess.
When asked if they enjoyed recess, four out of five students gave it the “thumbs-up.” The whole group agreed that adding a second recess has been a positive change, and when asked if they were able to focus more in class after recess, 100 percent of the students agreed.
The group detailed their recess activities, saying that kickball, basketball and spending time with their friends in other classes was their favorite part of recess. One student added that indoor activities, like playing with blocks and other toys, was more fitting for her.
Aside from the many physical benefits of recess, it also serves as an outlet for kids to release pent-up energy that can make certain children disruptive in the classroom. While administrators who make school policies don’t often see this consequence, teachers do.
Stefanie Trafecanty, a first-grade teacher at Kunkel Elementary who has seen the impacts of recess on all of her students, says, “They’ve been doing a much better job.”
In a 2014 joint study from the University of Colorado – Boulder and the University of Denver, researchers found that “6-year-olds who spent more time in unstructured play showed more signs of strong executive functioning and decision-making skills.” These skills lead to strong social relationships, which can correlate to academic success as well.
There is also evidence that suggests retention and memory are increased with breaks like recess throughout the day. “There’s no down side to recess. It’s only going to be adding value,” says Boes.
Recess has often been a tool or motivator for teachers trying to control unruly kids in the classroom. Until recently, this was an acceptable form of punishment, but research shows that taking away recess is not the correct form of punishment for every child.
For those suffering from behavioral problems, taking away their one outlet is only going to exacerbate the problem. Boes says that, in this case, alternative forms of punishment are needed.
“Just asking, why is this child doing what they’re doing and trying to delve into some of the needs behind the behavior is helpful…rather than just one size fits all.”
In fact, defiance and overactivity may be a manifestation of a child who is not getting the necessary amount of time to “be a kid.” Take, for instance, a child who repeatedly gets up to sharpen their pencil or one who interrupts another student, what may be occurring is that, without breaks, a child will make one or create one.
Another repercussion is inhibiting the development of social skills that recess allows children to develop with their peers. Taking away that outlet and decreasing social interaction can have a lasting impact on children and can carry over to adolescence.
According to the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, lawmakers in 11 states have seen the research backing the benefits of recess, leading to the creation of bills that prohibit public schools from withholding recess as a means to punish misbehaving students.
For states that have adopted policies against prohibiting recess, there is also a separate piece of legislation that forces school districts to outline clear policies about recess and assures that these policies are listed on district websites for transparency.
While the research shows the benefit of recess, not all teachers agree with how to implement it. There has been resistance from teachers using recess as a motivator for disciplinary action, and they say it works. However, teachers know that it is not a “what’s good for one is good for all” basis.
Boes says teachers should consider disciplinary action on a “case-by-case basis” to determine if taking away recess or taking minutes off of recess time is appropriate for that student.
Counselors and parents understand the difficult role teachers play in finding the appropriate discipline for children. Boes says to consider the alternatives before ruling out recess.
“It’s a hard role to be a teacher when you have children with behavioral difficulties, but just consider the value of that [recess], and consider ways to hold kids accountable that are outside of taking recess away.”
At Kunkel Elementary, teachers have already developed alternative approaches.
“Some of us take Ipads away. An Ipad is an incentive, and if they’re not doing a nice job during their independent work, then you don’t get the Ipad for the day,” offers Trafecanty.
A parent’s role is to provide, through support and guidance, tools to fuel growth and development. There are ways outside of recess to do this.
“I like to say to parents, pursue more green time than screen time,” Boes says.
Parents are encouraged to use tools like Go Noodle to effectuate increased physical activity in their child and the whole family. It is recommended by the AAP that children get 60 minutes of moderate to rigorous activity a day.
Additionally, parents who are concerned or curious about their child’s access to recess at school are encouraged to get involved. School-board meetings, PTO meetings and parent-teacher conferences are all great opportunities to have your voice heard.