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Recess Too Short for Analytical Thinking, Play Expert Asserts

Most parents of very young children intuitively know how important outdoor playtime is to their little ones, but early-childhood experts say we adults are often not giving them long enough stretches to develop their minds—especially during the school day.

Preschools or day cares often limit recess to 30-minute blocks, but that's just when the deep thinking is starting, said Myae Han, the president of the Rochester, N.Y.-based Association for the Study of Play and an assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Delaware.

"A higher quality of play begins to emerge at around 30 minutes," she said in an interview. "They might take 20 minutes to just explore the materials," which in the case of outdoor play might be a wooden fort, a sandbox or even leaves at the base of a tree.

Sometimes, imaginative, high-quality play begins long after that, she said.

"Children need free play so they can make choices and learn responsibility for those choices," she said.

Truncating outdoor playtime to 30 minutes or less curtails this important type of deep, creative and analytical thinking, she said.

According to research done in the 1990s on outdoor play--the only work of its kind--by Arizona State Universitsy's James F. Christie and Francis Wardle, of Red Rocks Community College, children actually stop trying to access a deeper level of play in anticipation of being interrupted.

"If you shorten playtime," Han explained, "you actually hurt their ideas."

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