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Cutting back on recess leaves kids with no downtime

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

Children are getting less and less playtime at school and at home. This is not only contributing to rising levels of obesity among kids, but it also contributes to behavioral problems – some of which are then managed with drugs – and decreased thresholds for learning. In fact, by cutting recess time, schools may be furthering a problem they are trying to forestall.

Time and again studies demonstrate the benefits children receive from free play, so it is doubly baffling why they insist on making further inroads in recess time. Some are going so far as to cut recess out entirely and provide gym class only about once a week. That often translates to about 15 minutes of free physical activity a day for children as young as 6 years old.

An overall decrease in playtime in even young children is resulting in kids who don't have a "culture of play," said Jill Vialet, the founder of Playworks, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the climate of play in schools, teaching kids the kinds of games they would have once learned from older peers. And children who don't play much also tend to struggle with self-control and learning, experts say, which can haunt them throughout their lives.

Play is a crucial developmental experience for all mammals, and especially humans. Play teaches us extremely valuable pro-social skills such as cooperation, problem resolution, friendship and, down the line, intimacy with other human beings. It is instrumental in shaping and fine-tuning our executive control center, the part of the brain responsible for long-term planning and judgment. Without exercising our executive control in childhood, we are setting the stage for lifelong problems with motivation, social interaction, and impulsive and aggressive behavior.

Unstructured free playtime, especially outdoors, has been taking severe phasedowns over the last two decades, increasingly replaced by planned schedules, increasing homework, and, of course, screen time in front of the TV or computer. A 2003 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that a quarter of kids under age 6 watched TV for at least two hours a day; these same kids spent 30 minutes less per day playing outside than kids who didn't spend so much time in front of a screen. And a pair of University of Maryland studies of children's time use found that in 1981, kids ages 6 to 12 had about 57 hours of free time per week. By 2003, kids had only 48 hours in which to choose their own activity.

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I am sure it will not surprise you to know that an increasing emphasis on early academics is partially to blame. Children have an average of just 20 to 30 minutes of “choice” free time each school day according to a 2009 report by the Alliance for Childhood – and that study addressed kindergarteners alone. The rest of the day was devoted to academics and test prep.

Of course, No Child Left Behind also has a lot to do with recess cutbacks, as schools spend increasingly frenetic amounts of time preparing children to pass the standardized test which allegedly reveals their academic preparedness.

Lower income children are, as usual, hardest hit. They often spend long hours at school and in afterschool care which is increasingly characterized by watching movies rather than running or playing old fashioned playground games. In effect, their days may involve absolutely no vigorous activity at all.

This is a dire situation for growing human bodies, which are programmed to be in constant motion, especially in childhood. Any cursory observation of a toddler brings that point home, as he wiggles, wriggles, tumbles, climbs, crawls and jumps nonstop. Such movement is absolutely central to the healthy development of the nervous system, of which cognitive and attentional activities are only the end-product.

The result, experts say, is children who come into school without good play skills. Used to regimented activities, these kids may struggle with the give-and-take of playground games, said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychologist at Temple University. "If kids were left to have some time on their own, they would in fact develop play ," Hirsh-Pasek said. "Now what we do is, we endanger the species by taking play opportunities away from them."

For more on the importance of play, exercise and downtime, check out this quick article.