Rethinking (Instead of Eliminating) Recess at Low-Income Schools

Play time is healthy. So why do adults want to get rid of it?

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Lately, school recess has been getting a lot of attention in the popular and research press. Some schools have it, more and more don't. What's ironic is that just as academic, budgetary and overcrowding issues have conspired to reduce recess, research has been highlighting its value.

Recess may be a new opportunity for schools can help kids and themselves at the same time.

Not only can recess help improve children's physical fitness and reduce childhood obesity, giving children time to be physically active, it helps them concentrate in school. Play also gives kids a chance to be creative and learn to solve disputes and make rules among themselves. Even more important, as play and recess have declined over the past half-century, anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism have increased, suggesting a connection between play and children's long-term mental health. It's starting to look like recess is more than child's play.

Can Recess Improve Schools? Can It Prevent Bullying?

Recess may be a new opportunity for schools to help kids and themselves at the same time. A recent study looked at what happens when schools provide playground coaches to help encourage play and resolve disputes during recess. The study focused on low-income, urban schools.

Previous studies have shown that these schools schedule much shorter recess time than more advantaged school districts. This may reflect the fact that these schools are trying to address academic weaknesses by increasing instructional programs, but has raised concerns about the impact of lost play time on students.

The study evaluated a program called Playworks, which is designed to structure recess to help schools help students in six key areas: school climate, conflict resolution and aggression, learning and academic performance, recess experience, youth development and student behavior.

Using Recess to Promote Cooperation

The Playworks program uses recess time to address social and emotional development issues. The nonprofit group, in research sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, placed full time coaches in low-income schools to provide opportunities for organized play during recess and class time.

The coaches helped engage fourth and fifth graders in physical activity and gave them the social skills, such as using the tried and true rock-paper-scissors technique, needed for better cooperation and conflict resolution, so they spent more time playing and less time arguing or fighting. Playworks also trained junior coaches to help students develop leadership skills themselves and serve as role models for other students and offered an after-school program.

Playworks aims not to prevent conflict, but to help students manage it better.

The researchers, from Mathematica Policy Research and the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University, were interested in how well the Playworks program could be integrated into schools, how it might improve the schools' atmospheres, and how it was perceived by students and staff.

The program was initiated in 14 elementary schools during the 2010-11 academic year, while 11 schools had their usual recess activities and served as a control group. The principals who elected to participate in the Playworks program were motivated, many indicated, by the hope of better organization of recess time, improvement of school climate, improved safety, and reduction of conflicts as goals motivating their participation.

Presented by

Esther Entin, M.D., is a pediatrician and clinical associate professor of Family Medicine at Brown University's Warren Alpert School of Medicine. She writes for TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com.

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