School children who receive more recess behave better and are likely to learn more, according to a large study of third-graders conducted by researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University.
The study, published in Pediatrics, suggests that a daily break of 15 minutes or more in the school day may play a role in improving learning, social development, and health in elementary school children. The study's principal investigator is Romina M. Barros, M.D., assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Einstein.
Dr. Barros looked at data on approximately 11,000 third-graders enrolled in the national Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. The children, ages 8 to 9, were divided into two categories: those with no or minimal recess (less than 15 minutes a day) and those with more than 15 minutes a day. There were an equal number of boys and girls. The children's classroom behavior was assessed by their teachers using a questionnaire.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, free, unstructured play is essential for keeping children healthy, and for helping them reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones. Unstructured play also helps kids manage stress and become resilient.
However, some studies indicate that children are getting less and less unstructured playtime, a trend exacerbated by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. "Many schools responded to No Child Left Behind by reducing the time for recess, the creative arts, and physical education in an effort to focus on reading and mathematics," says Dr. Barros.
A 2005 survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that the 83 percent to 88 percent of children in public elementary schools have recess of some sort. But the number of recess sessions per day and the duration of the recess periods have been steadily declining. Since the 1970s, children have lost about 12 hours per week in free time, including a 25 percent decrease in play and a 50 percent decrease in unstructured outdoor activities, according to another study.
The present study shows that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are especially affected by this trend. "This is a serious concern," says Dr. Barros. "We know that many disadvantaged children are not free to roam their neighborhoods, even their own yards, unless they are with an adult. Recess may be the only opportunity for these kids to practice their social skills with other children."
"When we restructure our education system, we have to think about the important role of recess in childhood development," adds Dr. Barros. "Even if schools don't have the space, they could give students 15 minutes of indoor activity. All that they need is some unstructured time."
Dr. Barros' coauthors include Ellen J. Silver, Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics, and Ruth E.K. Stein, M.D., professor of pediatrics.
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