Why has U.S. academic success dropped? The answer may be on the playground
A fierce rash on the boy's flushed face was Tim Walker’s first clue his student was stressed.
“I need my 75 minutes of recess,” the fifth-grader demanded. He knew the American teacher was fresh off the boat, new to the Finnish education system, and was convinced he did not understand what the boy's body and mind needed.
For every 45 minutes in a Finnish classroom, students get a 15-minute break. Walker knew that, but he created longer blocks of class time than the kids were accustomed to, lumping several short breaks into one lengthier break later in the day. The 10-year-old thought he was getting stiffed.
“I was not actually depriving my kids of a minute of recess,” said Walker. “I was just taking longer teaching segments and then longer breaks. I thought I knew better.”
Walker was simply teaching how he had been trained in the U.S. He began his career at a public elementary school in Chelsea, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. There, the school day was six hours long, and most teachers carved out just 15-20 minutes of recess per day, often tacked on after lunch. Instruction segments of 1½ or 2½ hours were normal.
Walker nodded to the youngster with the rash, then went home that night and revised the schedule, putting breaks at the end of each hour as the kids expected.
The difference in the classroom was immediate. No more zombies. Students returned from breaks with energy and better focus. They did more with less time. They enjoyed it more. Walker was a convert.
“Everybody needs breaks,” says Olga Jarrett, “and the brain research shows that neither children nor adults can maintain intense concentration for extended periods.”
A retired education professor at Georgia State University, Jarrett has become one of America’s most vocal advocates of more robust recess policies. For the past 20 years, she has been pushing against a tide of parental demands and federal policy that have prodded schools to dispense with anything that does not directly contribute to the bottom line of standardized tests — including recess.
In 1998, the New York Times quoted Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Benjamin O. Canada as saying, “We are intent on improving academic performance. You don’t do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars.”
Au contraire, say Jarrett and her allies. And they have substantial evidence to back up their claim.
Finns are dead serious about recess. Not only are the breaks required, but kids are required to go outside in all kinds of weather. Even in the deep Finnish winter, Walker said, unless the thermometer dips to an unholy level, elementary student kids are required to bundle up and go out. Administrators lock the doors to keep them out.
The breaks are short, of course. In the winter, by the time the kids get coats on and out the door, they may only have 10 minutes outside. “This isn’t deep play,” Walker said. The goal is to simply clear the mind and wiggle the limbs long enough to renew focus.
Finnish school days are short, and there is plenty of free time for deep play in after-school programs. The fifth-graders Walker teaches endure just five hours of school, including breaks, and they are not given homework. A normal day for a first-grader in Finland is like a half day for American kids — just three hours long.
“The frequent breaks keep kids fresh, and the shorter school days give kids lots of opportunity for deep play,” Walker notes.
Finland is not the only country where recess is sacred, Jarrett says. A few years back she was in Turkey, and her hotel was adjacent to an elementary school yard. The laughter and commotion on the playground went on all day.
She later asked some kids through an interpreter how much recess they got. “Only 15 minutes,” a boy replied. Is that 15 once a day or twice a day, she asked. The boy looked at her like she was crazy, Jarrett said. “No, we have class for 45 minutes, and then 15 minutes of recess.”
Earlier this year, Jarrett, in Turkey again, visited a middle school where the same recess pattern was used, even with older children. They played soccer games that continued through the day, resetting where they left off with score and possession each time, she said.
Fifteen minutes at a time can result in more social and creative play than one might think, Jarrett said. Her favorite childhood recess memory has nothing to do with sports. For weeks she and her classmates developed their own play, writing the script and rehearsing. The teacher later had them perform it in class, a spontaneous creation of the playground.
Power of play
“Children may learn more efficiently following changes in 'arousal levels,’ ” said John Ratey, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "Arousal level" is the psychiatric term for a state of alertness involving higher heart rate and blood pressure, a state of readiness to handle new events and process information.
“We don’t need to have kids on bicycles, but change in arousal level is an important factor in remembering things," Ratey said.
Kids in a classroom setting get wound up, but when they get out, their hormones and stimulation change — cueing the brain for the next round of focused learning. “You’re trying to set the stage for deeper or more powerful memories that can be retrieved later for problem solving or academic purposes,” Ratey said.
While some worry that learning will be compromised if kids come in from recess and take awhile to settle down, the opposite appears to be true. In a recent white paper for the U.S. Play Coalition, Jarrett notes that even though no long-term studies have been done showing the impact of recess on academic performance, there are multiple studies that show improved focus and classroom behavior, including less fidgeting and hyperactivity and more participation in class discussion after recess.
Ratey is no stranger to the importance of aerobic exercise for mental focus and learning. He is the best-selling author of "Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain," published in 2008.
But he also is very clear that aerobic exercise and the creative free play that characterizes recess are quite different matters. In "Spark," Ratey cites research suggesting that a key brain-growth hormone is stimulated in one part of the brain by aerobic exercise but in another by creative, complex play. The two effects are not interchangeable. Both are necessary.
The book had a major impact in Asia, Ratey said, noting that he has consulted with governments in Taiwan and South Korea — and was on his way to China — on how to build healthier, happier kids who do more than just score well on tests.
Especially with younger children, Ratey said, physical activity should be subordinated to play that encourages complex problem solving, cause-and-effect observations, and learning how their bodies work.
“As they decide how to move their bodies, they are enhancing some of the fundamental processes that underlie thought,” Ratey said. “All of these experiences spill over into academic growth.”
“Social skills, taking turns, fairness, adapting rules of the game are all things kids learn on the playground,” Jarrett said. “There are tremendous benefits that kids don’t get when they aren’t having recess.”
Ironically, fear that kids lack such skills is one of the chief excuses for not having recess. In fact, Jarrett notes, she is now combatting a growing problem in which disruptive kids are disciplined by missing recess, ironically robbing them of the very release their young minds and bodies may have badly needed in the first place.
One doctoral candidate Jarrett worked with at Georgia State was the principal of an Atlanta school that did not have recess. The principal expressed concern that recess would become a danger zone of bullying and abuse.
“Couldn’t you allow them out and then carefully observe what was going on, see who was getting bullied or left out, and then address the issues?” Jarrett asked.
“Oh my,” the principal replied. “I’d be afraid to let them out. They don’t know how to play.”
That exchange would not have surprised Jill Vialet, CEO of Playworks, a nonprofit group based in Oakland, California, that provides playground coaching to help kids learn the social structure of free play.
Vialet, who turned 50 this month, believes that the culture of spontaneous play she grew up with was lost between generations. Kickball was the central daily playground sport in Vialet’s school when she was a child. Games started before school and continued through recesses, even from one day to the next — just as Jarrett observed in Turkey.
Those skills have faded, said Vialet, acknowledging this is due in part to the role of technology and gadgets. But she focuses more on other cultural shifts, such as fears of litigation that dumb down playgrounds and overly program children who are shuffled from one formal activity to the next.
With a footprint now in 21 states plus the District of Columbia, Playworks is now operating in over 450 schools across the country. Its coaches, usually recent college graduates, are rock stars on the playground, Vialet said. They organize games, teach kids rules, and — most importantly — help transmit the culture of play and cooperation, including how to adapt rules, pick teams, handicap teams to keep the games fun, and resolve conflicts. The goal of a Playworks coach is never to direct or control, Vialet said, but only to facilitate and spark.
Playworks operates before and after school and during staggered recesses throughout the school day. With younger grades, it also works with teachers who bring kids out for structured play periods during class time.
Much current discussion of recess focuses on physical activity, a reflection of current concerns about childhood obesity. When the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded a formal study of Playworks, a key measure was vigorous movement on the playground, measured by gadgets called accelerometers that show how much kids move.
The study compared playgrounds using the Playworks method to control groups, and found that the Playworks groups displayed significantly higher levels of activity.
And yet, when Vialet describes Playworks, she doesn’t mention obesity or physical activity. She focuses on psychosocial factors: cooperation, creativity and conflict resolution. Vialet is quick to embrace the importance of physical activity when prompted, but she views all these elements not as separable pieces, but as a whole of a healthy childhood.
“Play has the power to bring out the best in every kid,” Vialet said. “It’s an essential developmental and experiential tool for teaching and learning.”
Vialet knows she is pushing against a tide of academic rigor that has displaced a lot of things, including play and recess. Starting in the 1990s, popular opinion and public policy began pushing ever harder on core subjects and testable learning. The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act accelerated this, and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top and the advent of Common Core continued it.
Vialet founded Playworks 18 years ago, before the current push for hard-core learning began. Back then, educators emphasized the “whole child” — a notion that tended to be “a little fluffy,” she said.
The proper balance, Vialet said, is somewhere between the extremes. “Education is a very human, complicated, personal thing.” And play, she believes, is central to social and academic development.
Fixing tunnel vision
The Asian countries Ratey consults with historically valued physical well-being, he said, but in recent decades they have focused tightly on test scores. South Korea now leads the world in adolescent suicide, Ratey notes, which is not surprising given the country’s single-minded obsession with academic performance.
Ratey sees both recess and physical education as standing opposed to the “drill, baby, drill” approach to education currently in vogue on both sides of the Pacific, having potential to address a number of maladies that afflict modern kids, including ADHD and dyslexia.
And then there is Finland, which now is nestled consistently in the top five worldwide on performance tests, but manages to do it with a radically more humane approach.
“Finland is a tundra,” Ratey says. “What is going on there? I really do think their 45 minutes of instruction against 15 of recess is a big reason why they are at the top.”
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