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Recess and Cognitive Development

Does anyone remember the stories about callisthenic exercises to start the day at school?


Years ago in elementary school, children would start their day by standing beside their desks. Music would be played and the principal or teacher would direct the class through a set of basic callisthenic exercises. It probably didn’t more than 10 minutes or so, but it was part of the daily routine. 


After the exercises, the children would take their seats and begin our school work. Back then, the two recess breaks students had between classes let them go outdoors and get fresh air and movement “to blow off some steam” before sitting down to study again. Looking at kids today and then thinking back to how school used to be is an exercise in nostalgia.





Movement and Exercise Helps Kids Learn Better


Movement is imperative for children to focus and learn. Unfortunately, school systems today are cutting away more and more active time for our kids. They do not understand the vital importance of exercise for the developing brain. Gym classes are being cut down and at some schools have even been completely eliminated, while recess times are getting shorter and shorter. 


Some schools in the United States have eliminated recess time altogether. These changes were made in order to cut expenses and are perceived as ways to improve test scores with more instruction time. 


Cognitive Benefits of Recess


Several studies show that kids are more attentive and able to perform better cognitively after recess. Students learn better when they take frequent breaks rather than concentrating for long stretches. After recess, children were seen to work more and fidget less in the classroom.


According to one study, recess contributes to better performance in students on academic achievement tests. Researchers also found that students performed more accurately on difficult tasks during tests, especially after exercise. 


Cognitive processing and academic performance in a child depends on regular breaks from concentrated classroom work. Recess is a necessary break in the day for optimizing a child’s cognitive, emotional, physical and social development. With such positive consequences, teachers should not oppose recess cutbacks and should instead push for longer free-play times. Teachers should also try to incorporate kinesthetic activities into their teaching techniques.


Less Recess = More ADHD


According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 11% of school-aged children in the US have been diagnosed with ADHD. Whereas in high school, 19% of boys have been affected by ADHD and other neurological disorders. 


It is interesting to study how exercise is related to ADHD. WebMD, an American company known primarily as an online publisher of news pertaining to human health, states that exercise increases the production of the same brain chemicals as ADHD stimulant medication. In other words, exercising increases the production of the chemical dopamine and serotonin in the brain, quite the same way that a prescribed medication would.


In fact, in a study in the Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology - ADHD kids who exercised more were better able to focus in class and had less impulsivity even if they were not taking medication. Regular exercises in ADHD kids have helped to resolve behavioural issues and improve executive functions as well.


Dr. Betsy Hoza, professor of psychology at the University of Vermont, did a study on exercise for ADHD and found similar results. She points out that even half an hour of exercise is vital to a child’s cognitive development regardless of having ADHD. Boys seem to be more impacted than girls. Another study shows that lack of movement/exercise in grade 1 children can negatively impact their ability to read and do math even two years later. 


This information is not new. A study back in 1998 clearly demonstrated that grade 4 students that availed recess breaks were less fidgety and worked more than when they did not get a recess break. The body of evidence outlining how exercise has brain benefits for people of all ages is increasing every day, but somehow our policymakers are still not paying any attention to any of it. 


Other Benefits of Recess


There are several other benefits of daily exercise during recess like helping promote a healthy body weight. Physical activities decrease diabetes and reduce cholesterol levels that are showing up in our kids because of the awful diet our culture has embraced. And now, we want to cut away even more at their active play time?


It turns out that recess is about more than just exercise. In a recent article published in Time Magazine, the American Academy of Pediatrics quoted: “Recess is a necessary break in the day for optimizing a child’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development.”


When our children have free time to play at recess they innovate new games as they go along, which makes them more creative, interacting with other kids, changing rules of the game and being dynamic as the situation demands.


Psychologists strongly agree that these free play situations help our children develop important social skills that are more important to function in the real world than academic scores. Playing a game of tag not only makes more kids jump into the game but also requires kids to develop flexibility in thinking and interacting. Free play encourages adaptive thinking and interacting, experimenting, creative problem solving, conflict management and many more skills that any human being needs to navigate throughout their adult life.


It is quite clear to me that active free play and recess are not just ‘fun’ options for our kids, they are vital, and every child should get at least one recess break in school. As adults, we need to make sure that schools give our kids the time they need to run around and play to nourish their brains and help them develop important life skills. We as responsible parents and teachers need to advocate for our kids and their health. 


I know that hundreds of parents in Canada and the United States are doing the same thing and eventually we will triumph.


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