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How to boost student learning? More recess might help

Recess isn’t just about play.
More than 80 percent of elementary-school principals believe that recess has a positive impact on academic achievement, according to a new Gallup survey released today.

Recess isn’t just about play.

More than 80 percent of elementary-school principals believe that recess has a positive impact on academic achievement, according to a new Gallup survey released today. The support for recess comes even though testing pressures have led to cutbacks in the amount of playtime in US schools.

Two-thirds of the principals in the Gallup survey also say that after recess, students listen better and are more focused in class. And almost all the principals agreed that recess has a positive impact on students’ social development and general well-being.

The findings support a growing wave of educators who are pushing to restore the place of recess in schools and, in some cases, to improve its quality.

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“We know that recess has been steadily eroding,” says Jane Lowe, team director for the vulnerable populations portfolio at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which sponsored the poll. “What this research shows is that anyone who’s really interested in improving education, or even the well-being of kids, has to take recess seriously.”

In recent years, battles have brewed in cities like Chicago, Atlanta, and Boston as some schools have dropped recess completely. Studies have found that up to 40 percent of US school districts have reduced or eliminated recess. In the Gallup survey, 1 in 5 principals said that federal requirements for adequate yearly progress (AYP) had led him or her to reduce recess.

In general, it’s been the push for better test scores that has led to cutbacks in recess, as principals try to round up as many instructional minutes as possible. But according to many child-development experts, recess and play are, in fact, vital to helping students learn better.

“By allowing kids a mental change and a release of energy, it’s a very important element – not only for kids to be around each other and to socialize, but also for classroom behavior,” says Romina Barros, a developmental pediatrician and professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. She published a study on the impact of recess last year.

For the youngest students, Dr. Barros says, recess and playtime aren’t just a break. They’re also a chance to practice what they learn in the classroom. A few weeks ago, her 5-year-old daughter told her about the conversation she had with a friend at recess, right after learning about opposites in school. The two girls talked about which things they like that are the same, and which are opposite.

When principals and teachers don’t see the benefits of recess – when kids return to class in the middle of a fight, for instance – it becomes even easier to let recess go, says Jill Vialet, founder and president of Playworks. This organization, a nonprofit, helps schools improve their recess by putting a trained coach there to help.

Ms. Vialet started Playworks, which currently operates in 170 schools in 10 cities, after observing how many kids no longer seemed to have the tools they needed to play “well” together at recess. At Playworks schools, the coach helps kids get games started, and he or she promotes quick conflict-resolution skills like “rock paper scissors.”

“It’s about giving kids the tools they need,” Vialet says.

That’s what Sara Shenkan-Rich, principal at Sherman Elementary School in San Francisco, has found. The “organized play,” she says, that her students get during recess with a Playworks coach helps them return to class better able to learn. It also keeps them safe during recess, she says.

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“In California, we have $113 million in budget cuts coming down, and I know my budget will be cut in a crazy awful way,” says Ms. Shenkan-Rich. “But I keep thinking, ‘How do I keep Playworks?’ I see it as one of the most important things in my budget.”