The importance of unstructured recess

By organizing activities at recess, or replacing recess with more classroom studies, educators are doing a horrible disservice to children

recessTORONTO, Ont. Dec. 28, 2016/ Troy Media/ – Educators like to focus on the three Rs – reading, writing, arithmetic – but pediatricians say we should add a fourth R of equal importance: recess.

Recess has long been thought of simply as a break in the day. Kids let off steam and then return to the classroom with renewed focus and resolution. Framed like this, recess is a coffee break for children.

Now, however, health professionals believe recess can help address other areas of concern related to children: rising obesity and mental illness, and a tide of anti-social behaviour, such as bullying. Recess has never been more valuable in helping children develop physically, psychologically and socially.

Children first play on their own, at a very young age. As they develop, they learn to interact with others, play in co-operation and imitate others’ skills. This type of learning requires unstructured play time.

As children age, they learn about friendship and the social rules that accompany these relationships. These interpersonal skills, too, can’t be learned from a textbook.

Teachers know how stressful it is for some kids to switch from subject to subject through the day. Going from learning math to language arts isn’t as simple as closing one textbook and opening another. Recess helps cognitive learning, providing a transition period that allows children to adjust to new materials. The unstructured play of recess helps kids return to class ready to learn.

But increasingly we hear that recess playgrounds are becoming more structured: no hockey or baseball, no ball throwing, no playing in the snow. Instead, games are organized – and sometimes they leave children out. It’s not surprising to see kids just standing around during the 15 or 20 minutes of recess. This can become a breeding ground for idleness and bullying.

Allowing kids unstructured play during recess is a necessity. Yet we are seeing two linked trends: more recess structure and alarming – and rising – childhood obesity rates.

A 2012 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics dealt with recess inconsistencies. Only three states had mandatory 20-minute recess. The study said that as recess times dropped or disappeared, childhood obesity increased. Some school districts replaced recess with additional academic study, but the affect on the health of children was troublesome.

In Britain, some educators require children to complete a 15-minute mile daily to combat obesity. The child must walk or jog at a brisk pace. Other teachers have taken to organizing activities such as kick ball or four-square.

Recent studies say that only nine per cent of Canadian children between five and 15 years old get the daily recommended physical activity.

So a renewed focus on recess might be the answer.

A recent Globe and Mail article says that in an average 30-minute phys-ed class, only six to eight minutes is spent in actual physical activity. And some kids don’t enjoy that activity if they feel they’re not as capable as their peers.

Any children who may not want to participate in a phys-ed class are genuinely crestfallen when a teacher withholds recess as a punishment. But the unstructured play of recess allows these kids the freedom to choose their own physical exercise.

Organization is good for physical activity – but it doesn’t add the value of unstructured play or the value gained when a child chooses their own activity.

And, sometimes, children just need a break from the structure of the classroom. Physical activities organized by a teacher don’t provide that break. Nor does restricting access to the type of physical activity kids enjoy and forcing one that an adult prefers.

It’s time educators took a recess from devaluing unstructured recess.

Troy Media columnist Maddie Di Muccio is a former town councillor in Newmarket, Ont., and former columnist with the Toronto Sun. Often appearing on talk radio and TV, she focuses on educational and political reform. Maddie is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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