How Recess Affects Learning for Students in Dallas-Fort Worth / Extra time on the playground makes for better students inside the classroom

WORDS
Amanda Caswell
PUBLISHED
March 2016 in
DallasChild, FortWorthChild, NorthTexasChild
UPDATED
February 29, 2016
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Leah Smith describes her first-grader Noah as high energy. “Honestly, I worried how his hyper active behavior would affect his schoolwork when he got beyond kindergarten,” the Irving mom admits.

But Noah goes to Brown Elementary School in Irving ISD, where taking 15-minute breaks from learning in the classroom to run, socialize and play games outside happens a lot — four times a day, in fact. That’s much more time on the playground than most public school kids get in the United States, where the standard is one recess break a day. And over the past several years, schools have actually cut recess time in order to keep pace with rigorous testing, test prep and academic standards.

Brown Elementary is just one of the North Texas schools participating in Let’s Inspire Innovation ‘N Kids (LiiNK), a program introduced by Dr. Debbie Rhea, a kinesiology professor at Texas Christian University. The project is simple: Increase the amount of time North Texas’ kindergarteners and first-graders play outside in an effort to bridge the gap between academics, and the social and emotional well-being of the children.

The program was inspired by Rhea’s semester-long sabbatical, during which she spent six weeks in Finland studying the reasons Finnish students consistently score near the top of international education rankings in science, reading, math and overall education (for perspective, the United States ranks somewhere in the 30th percentile). Students there received several breaks throughout the school day. For every hour of content time, they enjoyed 15 minutes of unstructured outdoor play.

So Rhea brought these ideas and practices back to the States. So far, she’s implemented LiiNK at four schools in two school districts in Dallas and Tarrant counties and two private schools in Fort Worth. She has plans to expand to five more school districts, including a Denton county district (and a school in Oklahoma), next fall. Every school that signs up starts with its youngest students and adds a grade each year thereafter. The programs look identical for all grades — four 15-minute recesses of play outside a day. The idea is to just let kids be kids during this time.

“Children here are losing the ability to think for themselves,” Rhea explains. “Besides increasing focus and attention spans, recess allows them to develop critical thinking and socialization skills, which is teaching kids to be responsible for their actions.”

And the results of the additional play time? Teachers report fewer disciplinary problems, less fidgeting, better listening, more concentration and improved individual problem solving inside the classroom. Kids ask teachers for help less when it comes to figuring something out.
Smith says Noah’s reading has improved as a result. When it comes to his studies inside the classroom and at home, “he’s more focused,” she says. 

Letting kids release their energy and use their imaginations in the fresh air and natural day light actually improves brain function too. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, regular recess helps kids behave better, be physically healthier and exhibit stronger social and emotional development.

So why hasn’t every school adopted a program with such positive outcomes? When Rhea first approached local schools with her idea, teachers were nervous about fitting in all the extra recess and covering the basics. And administrators worried the kids would be less attentive, that academic achievement would suffer and that learning time would be wasted on the swings and in the sandbox.
“The biggest pushback has come from school administrators who want to see classroom minutes,” Rhea admits. “They want to see 90 minutes of English and language arts, 60 minutes of math, 30 minutes of science, and 20 minutes of social studies, for example, but test scores prove that quantity isn’t working. We need to change the focus to quality.”

There was also concern about a backlash from parents.
Tom Bryant, whose daughter Kayla is in the first grade at Townsell Elementary School in the Irving ISD admits to being one of those initial skeptics.

But once LiiNK was implemented and students starting improving, naysaying parents like Bryant changed their tune.

“Recess four times a day seemed excessive,” he says. He worried that it would take away from his daughter’s time in the classroom, but it’s actually helped tremendously. “The project has created a nice balance: Kayla cares more about her work in the classroom, and she loves playing with her friends too.”

Want to see the LiiNK program implemented in your child’s school? Visit liinkproject.tcu.edu for more information and to get your school’s administration involved.


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