Employee & Community Health

School recess: More than fun and games

5/18/2017 by Dr. Natalie Gentile

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As a family physician who focuses on the role of healthy lifestyle and the epidemic of obesity, particularly in kids, I have a vested interest in recess. 

It frustrates me to hear that some schools withhold recess as a form of punishment when students misbehave, or use it as a time for students to make up missed work. Without recess, a child's day looks a lot like that of the average adult: sitting, reading, hunching over, dozing off. It's not a coincidence that the obesity epidemic coincides with a culture that's becoming more sedentary. Children mirror what adults do, and adults are, across the board, moving less and sitting more. 

School recess is more than just fun and games (although those are important, too). Here are some of the health, wellness and developmental benefits of recess: 

Gets kids moving: Current guidelines for childhood activity, based on the 5-2-1-0* recommendations, advise at least one hour of physical activity a day. But meeting that requirement is getting more difficult when recess is taken away or simply cut out; physical education class isn't offered every day; and after-school or evening activity gets shortened by homework loads. 

Improves ability to focus and pay attention: In a time when we are constantly concerned that our kids are becoming more inattentive and unable to concentrate, why would we take away a break time when they can burn off energy and increase blood flow, both of which allow for improved attention and concentration? 

Gets kids outside: Going outside during nice weather is easy, whether at school or home. But during cold winter months, recess at school might be the only time some students have the opportunity to go outdoors, so withholding it during the school day is detrimental. Some schools offer no alternate indoor activity if bad weather keeps kids inside. 

Allows children to make choices: During a typical school day, kids have little unstructured time. Their classes are scheduled and activities in the classroom are chosen by the teacher. Recess, which encourages free play, allows for problem solving, brain development, learning to regulate emotions and getting along with others. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics firmly supports building recess into the daily school schedule. If for no other reason than to prevent childhood obesity, we need more opportunities for physical activity during each school day. 

I encourage schools, teachers and parents to address the importance of daily, active recess time and to ban the practice of withholding recess as punishment. Let's work together to find ways during the school day to nurture and support our children's emotional and physical well-being. 

*5-2-1-0 refers to the wellness model that outlines how families can take action to prevent childhood obesity: 

  • 5 - Eat five (or more!) fruits and vegetables daily. Limit 100% fruit juice.
  • 2 - Reduce screen time to two hours or less a day. This includes TV, phones, computers, etc.
  • 1 - Participate in at least one hour of moderate or vigorous physical activity every day. 
  • 0 - Restrict soda and sugar-sweetened drinks. Choose water and fat-free or 1% milk instead. 

Dr. Natalie Gentile is a third-year Family Medicine resident in Employee and Community Health.