Julia Steiny: School Recess Is Good For Kids’ Mental Health

by Julia Steiny

Three years ago, prior to enrolling her son in the middle school, Phyllis Penhallow often had reason to be at the school just as lunch was over.

"I'd pull up, park, and the doors to the cafeteria would open. Teaching assistants herded the kids out to some grass. There was no real equipment, just a bin with 2 wiffle balls, no bats; 3 rubber balls, two deflated, no pump. The kids stood there for about 7 minutes and then got herded back in. I imagined herding cows out to graze. Except that they couldn't graze. They stood. I noticed the kids looked kind of sad, uninvolved, and not wanting to be there."

Julia Steiny

And that, my friends, was those kids' recess.

No running, whooping, cartwheels (it was grass), 4-square, tag, or card games. No double-dutch jump rope, kids sharing the latest dance moves, or showoffs doing whatever solo physical feat it is they do best. No explosion of pent-up energy.

Even worse, there was little visible socializing. Research argues that a key feature of recess breaks — K-12 — is for kids to learn how to interact with one another directly, with adults only hovering supportively in the background.

And if all this seems like something kids can do outside of school time, read the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) passionate advocacy piece, The Critical Role of Recess in Schools. Please note the word "critical." Breaks should take place at school — K-12.

During May is Mental Health Month, be aware that pediatricians believe recess should be treated with serious respect — or academics, physical, social, and mental health will suffer.

As it happens, Penhallow is a lecturer at the University of Rhode Island in the Human Development and Family Studies Department. A specialist in early childhood, she consults with the State's Department of Ed on early-learning standards. She's teaches about how children develop in happy, healthy, high-performance ways. And she knows that national studies say recess is dying. The time is being cut or eliminated and reallocated to academics. Even where there is recess, obsessive-compulsive safety policies forbid running run around or doing anything deem remotely risky. So the practices at Penhallow's school, Chariho Middle School, merely reflect current thinking, however unfun.

But change was imperative. So Penhallow started talking to other parents who, not surprisingly, knew little of the research on the subject. But some — probably those with the super-wriggly boys — felt the kids should be more physical.

Everyone agrees that pre-school kids need to be very active, running, tumbling, making stuff. But then they go to kindergarten and first grade and sit. Teachers move and talk, but kids sit. Yes, they get gym — often as little as schools can legally get away with. But the AAP argues that structured sports and gym time is still very adult driven, serving its own instructional purpose. Gym is no substitute for real recess with opportunities for kid-driven choices about what to do with each other, in, as Penhallow puts it, "adult-free space."

Penhallow and her parent colleagues admit that, out of frustration, they were too aggressive in how they tried to make changes. "You have to hear about the school's obstacles, their structure, time in the day." (Always good advice, Parents.) But eventually, the recess advocates won sympathy from the school's administration and Chariho's Superintendent. The district lengthened the time a bit, and parents helped fill the bins with items for quick sports like badminton.

But the District's most innovative move was to hire the Boston group, Playworkers, to train adults in supporting unstructured time. Playworkers' motto is: "Make Recess Count." Their site has many relevant research studies and testimonials from happy principals, mostly from low-income schools where recess has all but died out as a casualty of testing mania. Those principals adore how a rich recess experience improved discipline, liberating clear-headed time for academics. Investing in adults who supervise recess gives kids' free-time world a bit of structure and much more support. Staying out of kids' business and intervening only when asked or it's necessary is a skill, like any. And playing is essential — for all of us.

The efforts worked. Kids report that recess is way more fun — not perfect yet, but a real break.

Obesity is epidemic, but we won't let kids run around. Violence, low graduations rates and a high proportion of disaffected youth are alarming, but schools rarely think about supporting kids' mental health. Skills for healthy conflict resolution seem to be at an all-time low — witness Congress — but kids have no time for supported social life. Recess isn't just rejuvenating, fun and relaxing. It's instructive in its own right.

At a panel discussing recess — where I met Penhallow — a pediatrician in the audience, Dr. William Hollinshead, suggested that parents ask their doctors to write prescriptions for recess. Perhaps the schools will listen to doctors.

Because too few others are concerned that eliminating recess is making kids fat, school-hating and nuts.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal's education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she's been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny
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