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Why has U.S. academic success dropped? The answer may be on the playground

Published: Sunday, Aug. 10 2014 6:10 a.m. MDT

Updated: Monday, Aug. 25 2014 1:15 p.m. MDT

Kids play at recess Monday, July 28, 2014, at Blackridge Elementary in Herriman, Utah.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

A fierce rash on the boy's flushed face was Tim Walker’s first clue his student was stressed.

“I need my 75 minutes of recess,” the fifth-grader demanded. He knew the American teacher was fresh off the boat, new to the Finnish education system, and was convinced he did not understand what the boy's body and mind needed.

For every 45 minutes in a Finnish classroom, students get a 15-minute break. Walker knew that, but he created longer blocks of class time than the kids were accustomed to, lumping several short breaks into one lengthier break later in the day. The 10-year-old thought he was getting stiffed.

“I was not actually depriving my kids of a minute of recess,” said Walker. “I was just taking longer teaching segments and then longer breaks. I thought I knew better.”

Walker was simply teaching how he had been trained in the U.S. He began his career at a public elementary school in Chelsea, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. There, the school day was six hours long, and most teachers carved out just 15-20 minutes of recess per day, often tacked on after lunch. Instruction segments of 1½ or 2½ hours were normal.

Walker nodded to the youngster with the rash, then went home that night and revised the schedule, putting breaks at the end of each hour as the kids expected.

The difference in the classroom was immediate. No more zombies. Students returned from breaks with energy and better focus. They did more with less time. They enjoyed it more. Walker was a convert.

“Everybody needs breaks,” says Olga Jarrett, “and the brain research shows that neither children nor adults can maintain intense concentration for extended periods.”

A retired education professor at Georgia State University, Jarrett has become one of America’s most vocal advocates of more robust recess policies. For the past 20 years, she has been pushing against a tide of parental demands and federal policy that have prodded schools to dispense with anything that does not directly contribute to the bottom line of standardized tests — including recess.

In 1998, the New York Times quoted Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Benjamin O. Canada as saying, “We are intent on improving academic performance. You don’t do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars.”

Au contraire, say Jarrett and her allies. And they have substantial evidence to back up their claim.

See also: The real reason you should give your kids a break during the day

Short breaks

Finns are dead serious about recess. Not only are the breaks required, but kids are required to go outside in all kinds of weather. Even in the deep Finnish winter, Walker said, unless the thermometer dips to an unholy level, elementary student kids are required to bundle up and go out. Administrators lock the doors to keep them out.

The breaks are short, of course. In the winter, by the time the kids get coats on and out the door, they may only have 10 minutes outside. “This isn’t deep play,” Walker said. The goal is to simply clear the mind and wiggle the limbs long enough to renew focus.

Finnish school days are short, and there is plenty of free time for deep play in after-school programs. The fifth-graders Walker teaches endure just five hours of school, including breaks, and they are not given homework. A normal day for a first-grader in Finland is like a half day for American kids — just three hours long.

“The frequent breaks keep kids fresh, and the shorter school days give kids lots of opportunity for deep play,” Walker notes.

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