Majid T. Fotuhi

Is Recess a Waste of Time?

October 21, 2011 at 3:15 pm , by

I have what is known in the parenting business as an “active boy.” Let me break it down for you in layman’s terms. It’s Sunday morning. You’re sick as a dog. Your 5-year-old son is delightful and well-behaved, showing much concern for your well-being, even asking if a kiss would help. Fast-forward to after he’s been sitting quietly for four hours, watching videos and playing with trucks while you sneeze miserably into your pillow, and your well-behaved young man is starting to turn into… Satan. He can’t behave, can’t focus; his mood goes to H-E-double-hockey-sticks. So you scrape yourself out of bed and take him out so he can run around. Problem solved; Satan vanquished.

So naturally, when I was looking at schools, recess was top of mind. Last I checked, teachers don’t generally enjoy teaching Satan the sort of kid that my son becomes when he’s been sitting quietly for half a day. Scott is usually well-behaved and loves to learn. But he’s got to move every few hours. All kids do, the experts say, and studies show it not only improves their behavior (duh!) but actually helps them learn. As a mom of an active boy, I know that if my son doesn’t get enough exercise, it will set him up for academic failure, plain and simple. I wasn’t surprised to read a recent report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that 4 out of 5 principals feel that recess has a positive impact on academic achievement.

I’m the psychology editor at LHJ and similar studies about adults and exercise are always coming across my desk. Basically, daily exercise helps stabilize your mood, it relieves stress and makes your brain work better—in addition to all the other health benefits. The evidence is so compelling that businesses are trying to find ways to basically bribe their employees into exercising, so as to have a healthier, more productive work force. I know I work better if I get some exercise around lunchtime. Yet many schools, with parents’ blessings, are cutting out recess entirely, feeling that it’s a waste of time that should be spent on academics. Meanwhile the kids get antsy, more are labeled “ADHD,” and they all stop learning as efficiently. Never mind our childhood obesity epidemic!

Because of what I’d read about schools ditching exercise in favor of more academics, I was afraid I’d run into school administrators who were anti-recess. Not at my son’s school! PS9 is a cash-strapped New York City public school with a high-poverty student body, in a time where meeting higher academic standards is do-or-die—schools that don’t perform are being shut down. But in her address to prospective parents, one of the major points made by the dynamic principal, Sandra D’Avilar, was about exercise. “Kids have got to move,” she said. Amen! She probably also realizes that if recess has any effect on test scores, it’s a positive one.

What I didn’t realize is that having a pro-exercise principal is only half the battle. Read more