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The 3 R’s? A Fourth Is Crucial, Too: Recess

Susan Notes:

Ohanian Comment: What do you think it will take to get the Times education editorialist, who gets his information from the Business Roundtable, to acknowledge this research? I wrote a book detailing the recess outrage: In 2002, What Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children Struggling in Kindergarten? The book includes research showing the importance of play. Of course, the media ignored the book, as did the book-buying public. I am happy to see the topic is finally getting some attention.

Below, there is a hot link to the study.

By Tara Parker-Pope

The best way to improve childrenâs performance in the classroom may be to take them out of it.

New research suggests that play and down time may be as important to a childâs academic experience as reading, science and math, and that regular recess, fitness or nature time can influence behavior, concentration and even grades.

A study published this month in the journal Pediatrics studied the links between recess and classroom behavior among about 11,000 children age 8 and 9. Those who had more than 15 minutes of recess a day showed better behavior in class than those who had little or none. Although disadvantaged children were more likely to be denied recess, the association between better behavior and recess time held up even after researchers controlled for a number of variables, including sex, ethnicity, public or private school and class size.

The lead researcher, Dr. Romina M. Barros, a pediatrician and an assistant clinical professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said the findings were important because many schools did not view recess as essential to education.

âSometimes you need data published for people at the educational level to start believing it has an impact,â she said. âWe should understand that kids need that break because the brain needs that break.â

And many children are not getting that break. In the Pediatrics study, 30 percent were found to have little or no daily recess. Another report, from a childrenâs advocacy group, found that 40 percent of schools surveyed had cut back at least one daily recess period.

Also, teachers often punish children by taking away recess privileges. That strikes Dr. Barros as illogical. âRecess should be part of the curriculum,â she said. âYou donât punish a kid by having them miss math class, so kids shouldnât be punished by not getting recess.â

Last month, Harvard researchers reported in The Journal of School Health that the more physical fitness tests children passed, the better they did on academic tests. The study, of 1,800 middle school students, suggests that children can benefit academically from physical activity during gym class and recess.

A small study of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder last year found that walks outdoors appeared to improve scores on tests of attention and concentration. Notably, children who took walks in natural settings did better than those who walked in urban areas, according to the report, published online in August in The Journal of Attention Disorders. The researchers found that a dose of nature worked as well as a dose of medication to improve concentration, or even better.

Andrea Faber Taylor, a child environment and behavior researcher at the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois, says other research suggests that all children, not just those with attention problems, can benefit from spending time in nature during the school day. In another study of children who live in public housing, girls who had access to green courtyards scored better on concentration tests than those who did not.

The reason may be that the brain uses two forms of attention. âDirectedâ attention allows us to concentrate on work, reading and tests, while âinvoluntaryâ attention takes over when weâre distracted by things like running water, crying babies, a beautiful view or a pet that crawls onto our lap.

Directed attention is a limited resource. Long hours in front of a computer or studying for a test can leave us feeling fatigued. But spending time in natural settings appears to activate involuntary attention, giving the brainâs directed attention time to rest.

âItâs pretty clear that all human beings experience attentional fatigue,â Dr. Faber Taylor said. âOur attention has to be restored from that fatigue, and there is a growing body of research evidence that nature is one way that seems particularly effective at doing it.â

Playtime and nature time are important not only for learning but also for health and development.

Young rats denied opportunities for rough-and-tumble play develop numerous social problems in adulthood. They fail to recognize social cues and the nuances of rat hierarchy; they arenât able to mate. By the same token, people who play as children âlearn to handle life in a much more resilient and vital way,â said Dr. Stuart Brown, the author of the new book âPlay: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soulâ (Avery).

Dr. Brown, a psychiatrist in Carmel Valley, Calif., has collected more than 6,000 âplay historiesâ from human subjects. The founder of the National Institute for Play, he works with educators and legislators to promote the importance of preserving playtime in schools. He calls play âa fundamental biological process.â âFrom my viewpoint, itâs a major public health issue,â he said. âTeachers feel like theyâre under huge pressures to get academic excellence to the exclusion of having much fun in the classroom. But playful learning leads to better academic success than the skills-and-drills approach.â

Join the discussion.

— Tara Parker-Pope
New York Times


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