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Pediatrics Academy Speaks Out on 'Crucial Role' of Recess

With recess facing an uncertain future in some schools, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a policy statement today emphasizing the unique role of recess in the development of children.

The AAP notes that in recent years, studies and surveys have indicated that recess time has been on the decline in favor of more class time. (Here's looking at you, high-stakes testing.)

However, with childhood obesity on the rise since the turn of the century, schools also now face calls to address the epidemic by scheduling more physical activity throughout the school day.

The academy suggests that recess can be a way to accomplish two goals simultaneously. Previous studies have found students to be more attentive in class after recess, as their brains need time to recover after intense bouts of instruction.

"To be effective, the frequency and duration of breaks should be sufficient to allow the student to mentally decompress," the AAP recommends.

Beyond the social and emotional benefits of allowing students to spend time with their friends in a nonstructured environment, recess also provides children an opportunity to get outside and stretch their legs for a few minutes each day, which the AAP and other experts consider critical.

"Even minor movement during recess counterbalances sedentary time at school and at home and helps the child achieve the recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day," the statement reads.

Allowing children to engage in physical activity in recess could help them stay physically fit, which could end up helping them in the classroom, too. A review published online in January in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found "strong evidence" of a link between academic achievement and physical fitness.

The academy stops short of recommending a specific amount of time to allocate to recess on a daily basis, noting that U.S. schools tend to provide a range from 20 to 60 minutes per day. Meanwhile, schools in Japan tend to give their students hourly breaks.

To be clear, the academy does not believe schools can cut recess for physical education or vice versa. The authors specifically state that recess is a complement to physical education, but not a replacement for it.

"Physical education is an academic discipline," they write. "Whereas both have the potential to promote activity and a healthy lifestyle, only recess (particularly unstructured recess) provides the creative, social, and emotional benefits of play."

Last year, Education Week opinion blogger Peter DeWitt, an elementary school principal, wrote a post that espoused many of these same values of recess:

"There are many benefits to bringing students outside for 25 to 30 minutes a day, five days a week. They learn how to play games with friends, and they also learn how to interact with new peers that may not be in the same classroom. In addition, they learn how to work out their problems out at recess. It is a place where they can test out the problem-solving skills that we teach them during the day."

Now, DeWitt and other recess advocates have the AAP on their side.

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