In the early 2000s, following the introduction of the No Child Left Behind Act, recess times were reduced by an average of 50 minutes per week in schools across America. The need to prepare students for assessments and testing necessitated an increase in instructional time, cutting into the free periods usually dedicated to playing and physical activity.
The widespread gutting of recess times indicates a belief that unstructured play time is less important for children than time spent in the classroom. This attitude is flawed for a number of reasons: first, it places a much greater premium on academic learning than on the development of social skills, creativity and physical and mental health; and second, it fails to account for new evidence suggesting that regularly scheduled breaks do not harm academic achievement but actually improve it.
The Liink Project is an initiative seeking to improve health, emphasize ethical behavior and increase effective learning via play and creativity. The project’s catchphrase, “Do something different rather than more rigor of the same”, reflects its core mission of promoting learning by mixing up the school day with as many as four 15-minute recess breaks – two in the morning and two in the afternoon.
A number of US schools have already begun trials of the Liink Project’s proposed recess program. Testimonials on their website suggest an improvement in creativity, productivity and core skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking.
The cognitive benefits of recess have been well documented in recent research, which indicates that children learn best when periods of concentrated instruction are interspersed with periods of interruption – preferably in the form of unstructured breaks like recess. Breaks from the classroom also allow students to refocus, resulting in greater attentiveness and productivity.
Physical activity is another important component of recess which has come under increased scrutiny, following campaigns such as Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Active Schools. While it’s recommended that children and adolescents get an hour of physical activity a day, only 1 in 3 American children is active on a daily basis. Recess is a great opportunity for kids to get active – but only 9 US states require it in elementary schools.
Recess has been found to be especially beneficial in low-income elementary schools, where it can contribute to a positive school environment, helping students feel safer and more engaged. Interestingly, while socializing and playing with other children is extremely important, the most beneficial recess breaks involved the supervision and attention of adults. Schools with well-structured recess programs report decreases in bullying and student-to-student conflict.
Though it might seem counterintuitive, giving students a break from the classroom can be one of the best ways to improve their learning. The unstructured activity of recess not only readies the mind for more learning, it also helps children develop into healthier, happier and more social individuals.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.