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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Day school students, their parents and their teachers are very well aware of the toll taken by the long school day. Often, at this time of year, youngsters get on the bus while it is still dark, and return in the dark as well. By the time the last period or two comes around, yawns and zoning out are not uncommon. Of course, the challenge of a dual curriculum demands more classroom time. In addition, the explosion of STEM courses, computers, electives, AP classes etc. make additional demands on an already crowded schedule. The number of classes taken each day, the weight of the textbooks in the backpacks, the volume of homework etc. are exhausting. Schools wrestle with this problem. Sometimes, recess, snack and lunch breaks are sacrificed on the altar of more instructional time. Don’t our children deserve some down time?

Recently on NPR’s Marketplace, David Brancaccio did an investigative piece on just this issue. Granted, he was dealing with public schools, but his findings apply even more in a day school setting. What he found was that the short play breaks that kids have in school don’t just improve their skill at hopscotch—there’s evidence that recess can actually help with social skills like collaboration, and actually improves focus in the classroom.

While some schools have cut back on recess to make more time for standardized test prep, states like Florida and Rhode Island have been pushing back by implementing laws to make sure students get enough time for free play.

Marketplace reporter Amy Scott discussed the value of recess and what some teachers have noticed after giving their students several breaks.

We live in an era of increased accountability for schools. There is more emphasis on standardized tests. Schools often see more value in increased instruction and test prep time. But there’s actually a lot of evidence that recess itself can boost academics. Stephanie Garst, executive director of the U.S. Play Coalition at Clemson University, says there’s actually a business argument for recess.

Research shows that unstructured play helps children with their social skills, academic skills and all of those 21st-century skills that employers are looking for, like collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity. All those things come out on the playground. Even though gym class is still there, it’s really the unstructured, child-led part of play that many experts say is so important. There’s been an experiment in Texas where some schools are requiring their kindergartners and first graders to get out for recess four times a day for 15 minutes each. At first, teachers were really worried about losing class time for instruction. What they immediately started to notice is that the kids are less fidgety and less distracted, and there were fewer discipline issues.

Some schools combine recess with lunch. The total time period is 30 minutes, and they supposedly get 15 minutes for lunch, then 15 minutes for lunch recess. But frequently kids don’t have time to eat. There is always a reason. The teacher kept them for a few minutes before they walked down to the cafeteria because of kids who wouldn’t stop talking while lining up, or they stand in the lunch line for 10 minutes and have five minutes to eat.

And if a kid isn’t finished when it’s time for the next grade to move in, what kid is going to stay when his friends are running outside to play? They’d rather toss that sandwich and go run around with their friends—because they are kids. Often, they aren’t getting enough time. Every child has the right to eat a full, healthy meal at school.

We are focused on getting healthier foods into our schools, which is important, but what about making sure kids have a good environment in which to eat those foods? How can we expect kids to learn on an empty stomach because they simply ran out of time? A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics looked at how lunch times affect what kids eat. They found that when kids had less time to eat, they actually ate less of everything.

More and more researchers, educators and parents are realizing that not only is playground time good for kids—it is crucial. Teachers are under pressure to make sure they’ve drilled reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic; humash; Ivrit; Navi; etc. deep into their students’ brains—and there are only so many hours in the school day. So if you have to get rid of an “extra” activity to make way for more book time—well, you might as well go for the playtime. After all, school is supposed to be about learning, right?

Prisoners get more time out on the yard than some students. A recent study of more than 11,000 8- and 9-year-olds, led by pediatric researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, showed that kids who had at least 15 minutes of recess a day (even just 15 minutes!) behaved better in class.

According to study author and developmental pediatrician Romina Barros, M.D., their conduct was likely better because, after hours of concentration, they were able to give their exhausted brains a rest before going back to absorbing information—something many young kids can only do well for about a half hour at a time.

More and more, parents are protesting school policies that allow teachers and administrators to withhold recess to punish student misbehavior. Common infractions include tardiness, acting out in class and failure to complete homework—everyday childhood behaviors that result in numerous children having to go without recess on any given day.

The research is clear. Children need recess. It benefits every aspect of childhood development—physical development, of course, but also social, emotional and intellectual development as well. If we want our children to succeed, recess should not be denied. Everyone benefits from a break. Research dating back to the late 1800s indicates that people learn better and faster when their efforts are distributed, rather than concentrated. That is, work that includes breaks and down time proves more effective than working in long stretches. Because young children don’t tend to process information as effectively as older children (due to the immaturity of their nervous systems and their lack of experience), they benefit the most from taking a break for unstructured play.

Recess increases focus. Dr. Olga Jarrett, at Georgia State University’s department of early childhood education, approached an urban school district that had a no-recess policy. They received permission for two fourth-grade classes to have recess once a week so they could observe the children’s behavior on recess and non-recess days. Their results showed that the 43 children became more on-task and less fidgety on days when they had recess. Sixty percent of the children, including five with attention deficit disorder, worked more and/or fidgeted less on recess days.

Studies have shown that natural light improves overall health. Sunlight stimulates the pineal gland, which is the part of the brain that helps control our biological clock. It is vital to the immune system, and just makes us feel better. Outside light also triggers the synthesis of vitamin D, which a number of studies have proven increases academic learning and productivity.

Recess reduces stress. The National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends unstructured physical play as a developmentally appropriate means of reducing stress—a valuable benefit given that stress has a negative impact on learning and health. For many children, especially those considered “hyperactive,” recess is an opportunity to expend energy in a healthy, suitable manner. Outside, children can engage in behavior—loud, messy and boisterous—considered unacceptable indoors. And because recess is a break from structure and expectations, children have a chance to take control of their environment, which is a rarity in their lives.
Recess develops social skills. Recess may be the only time during the day when children have an opportunity to experience socialization and real communication. Our children don’t engage in the neighborhood play of earlier generations, so once the school day is over, there may be little opportunity for unstructured, natural social development. After all, in class children generally are not encouraged to socialize, but rather are expected to conform and remain orderly. How can children with so few opportunities to socialize and communicate be expected to live and work together in harmony as adults? When and where will they learn how?

Exercise is healthy. Many children suffer from obesity, but even children without weight issues benefit from physical activity, and in fact require it for optimal health. The outdoors is the best place for children to burn calories, practice developing physical skills and experience the pure joy of movement. Research has even shown that children who are physically active in school are more likely to be physically active at home, and children who don’t have the opportunity to be active during the school day don’t usually compensate during afterschool hours.

Physical activity nourishes the brain. We know from neurological research that most of the brain is activated during physical activity—much more so than while inactive. Movement increases the growth of blood vessels in the brain. This accelerates the delivery of oxygen, water and glucose (“brain food”), thereby boosting the brain’s performance. Furthermore, studies have shown that students who are physically active improve their academic performance, achieve higher test scores and demonstrate a better attitude toward school.

Recess should never be withheld from children as punishment, because it doesn’t work. Studies and anecdotal evidence point out that in any given school, it’s generally the same children who tend to have their recess withheld, indicating that the threat is ineffective. And, as Eric Jensen, author of several books on brain-based learning, tells us, remaining seated for periods longer than 10 minutes “reduces our awareness of physical and emotional sensations and increases fatigue,” resulting in reduced concentration and discipline problems. Demanding that children move less and sit more is counterproductive. Research, and our own common sense, tell us we should be doing the opposite.

By Wallace Greene

 Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene was the principal of The Hebrew Youth Academy (Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy) for 10 years.