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Does More Time on the Playground Equal Success in the Classroom?

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Some schools in Texas are going against the grain when it comes to recess. Instead of cutting it out like many districts do in order to spend more time on core subjects, they're adding additional recess periods.

Six elementary schools in the state are participating in the LiiNK (Let's Inspire Innovation 'N Kids) Project, a research study on the effects of kids having multiple recess periods a day.

EME monkey bars.JPG"I tell parents all the time that kids are not hardwired to sit still all day," said Bryan McLain, the principal of Eagle Mountain Elementary in Fort Worth, Tex. His school implemented the program this academic year for students in kindergarten and 1st grade. Second graders are set to participate during the 2016-2017 school year.  Students in the program have four 15-minute recess periods a day.

That's certainly not the norm in schools across the country. The National Center on Education Statistics reports that in 2005 the majority of public elementary schools had recess with 55 to 66 percent of them offering it once a day. But many experts believe those numbers may be lower now as the emphasis on high-stakes testing has increased.

In Florida, some moms who are upset about the loss of any time for recess pushed the legislature to mandate it by law. Their effort failed. The measure passed in the state house but never got a hearing in the state senate.

The group was asking for a total of 20 minutes of recess a day.

Debbie Rhea said that's not enough. She holds a PhD in education from the University of Houston and works at Texas Christian University where she's a professor in kinesiology and the associate dean for research and health sciences. She also runs the LiiNK Project.

Sedentary Kids

"We are sitting our students in the seats way too many hours of the day, so we're creating very sedentary kids," said Rhea.

She said that has negative implications for physical fitness and socialization.

The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees, calling recess a "necessary break" from academic work that offers "cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits."

Rhea said her work so far with LiiNK has proven that. Schools participating in the program offer students four 15-minute recess periods per day, two before lunch and two after. This is only implemented after teachers and administrators have been trained extensively in the program, which is modeled on the way elementary schools operate in Finland. Right now, the program is in place in four public elementary schools and two private elementary schools in Texas. But there are plans to expand it to schools in Oklahoma and across the country. Ten more schools are expected to start the program in the fall. The program also includes a character education curriculum, which the teachers lead three times a week for 15-20 minutes each time.

Schools that participate in the LiiNK Project offer recess that is unstructured, outdoors, and kid-centered.

"Meaning that the teacher doesn't set up the rules for the kids, and they don't set up games for the kids" said Rhea. "What recess does is it gives them that time to socialize. It stimulates brain function. It builds their bodies. Emotionally, they're less stressed and less anxious as a result."

And, she said, those benefits carry over once students leave the playground.

Classroom Benefits

"When they come back to the classroom, they're much more focused, much more on point and ready to take in material," said Rhea. "They do better on tests. They do better on everything when they have that."

McLain said office referrals are down at his school, and parents and teachers like the program, despite some initial concerns about the loss of class time.

"What we have found is that our instructional time has actually increased," said McLain. "The time that might have been focused on redirecting students or reteaching because of misbehavior now we don't have to do that because the kids are more focused."

The program is only three years old, and Rhea is still collecting data. But, she said, so far she's seen positive results across the board.

"It doesn't matter about race, doesn't matter about economics, doesn't matter where they live," said Rhea. "All of them are improving. It's changing their focus dramatically."

(Photo: Kids at Eagle Mountain Elementary in Fort Worth, Tex., play on the monkey bars during recess.) (Courtesy Bryan McLain)

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