Everyone knows it’s important for children to learn to work.
But it might be equally important that they make time to play.
It’s not just something people like me (who have a life-long commitment to goofing off) believe or feel. It’s something that’s actually been scientifically studied by people who had questions about just how valuable games were to the educational process.
As it turns out, they’re critical.
This issue captured my attention several times in the last month as I listened to parents (myself included) talk about how best to help young people work harder, be more responsible and feel a sense of service or selflessness. Then, earlier this week I read an article about a Texas elementary school that had tripled its recess time.
The impact was interesting.
The project, designed by Texas Christian University kinesiologist Debbie Rhea, seeks to copy what she witnessed in Finland schools, according to the article in KQED News. While they consistently earned top test scores, while making time for recreation and exercise up to four times each day, they also enjoyed other benefits like improved health and better social skills.
So Eagle Mountain Elementary tripled recess time from 20 minutes per day to one hour – spread over several breaks throughout the day. While doing this, they also added a program that taught the children about character development, including empathy and positive choices.
There aren’t statistics to prove this approach has changed anything related to test scores just yet, but the teachers who work with the children every day said they’ve seen massive changes.
They children were more focused, more attentive and better behaved. This backs up what the American Academy of Pediatrics said in their recent policy statement, which is that youngster with time to play will be healthier and perform better academically.
And the National Federation of State High School Associations, which oversees sanctioned high school sports in all 50 states, has issued repeated statements (supported by studies) about the benefits of sports in conjunction with schools.
In the NFSHS “Case for High School Activities” on the organization’s website, the group asserts that extracurricular activities are “not a diversion, but rather an extension of a good educational program. Students who participate in activity programs tend to have higher grade-point averages, better attendance records, lower dropout rates and fewer discipline problems than students generally.”
So if everyone agrees that play time benefits young people, why is there so little of it left in most schools? Why is taking recess the first punishment we impose on young people struggling to behave? Why do we see games associated with schools – whether they’re junior high sports teams or varsity high school sports – as expendable and unrelated to the experiences of the student athletes who participate? Why are we so reluctant to make time for games and so willing to subject our children to the stress of more tests?
We shouldn’t be making recess an endangered activity, just as we shouldn’t make it so expensive to participate in high school sports and activities that only the rich (or sponsored by the rich) can participate.
We should be finding more ways for children to participate, more activities in which they can be involved. Some schools are doing that, but far more need to see this is part of their primary role.
The most-forward thinking schools and districts are looking to offer opportunities that don’t include sanctioned activities, like Alpine District’s rock climbing clubs and the Park City, Canyons and Salt Lake District’s embrace of mountain biking teams.
Recess, like organized sports, is about teaching children to love movement. It fosters cooperation and imagination and enhances fitness. It’s about realizing that when you make time for joy, you can more easily deal with life’s difficulties.
We should be looking for more ways for our children to enjoy unstructured play, while we simultaneously look for more ways to let all teens, not just those with club and college aspirations, participate in competitive sports and activities.
Maybe there are state and federal laws that make finding the time for more recreation and exercise in the school day difficult, which is maybe where parents and local authorities could start.
So much has changed in our society, and the sad reality is that my children did not have the opportunity to explore the world like I did. I was too afraid of what might happen to them, so I kept them in organized activities, rather than let them roam the neighborhood on their own.
Luckily they attended a school that valued physical activity and they benefited from several recesses per day, as well as real P.E. classes where they learned games while also inventing their own.
Those changes in a child’s ability to wander and play without constraint make it even more imperative that we find ways for them to enjoy unstructured play, the rejuvenating magic of the outdoors and the stress-relieving qualities of exercise or organized games.
Anyone who has ever played competitive sports understands all of the benefits that can be derived from the experience. But all children can benefit from learning to value play, recreation and exercise if we protect and restore those opportunities.
Embracing play supports so many virtues that we should value in people of any age. And a commitment to physical health will enhance their lives in ways that no study will ever completely capture.