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Reading, Writing, Rithmetic -- and Recess!

Recess has begun disappearing in states all around the country. The reason is the increasing emphasis on "academics" and the mistaken belief that recess detracts from time that could be better spent studying. According to some estimates, 40% of schools have already eliminated recess or are considering the idea. Some cities have abolished recess completely and are building new elementary schools without playgrounds!

But does recess detract from children's studies? What does the research say?

Recess and Academics

Language arts (comprised of listening, speaking, reading, and writing), mathematics, science, and social studies are often considered the "essential" content areas in a typical curriculum. Although it may not be immediately obvious, recess can have an impact on all of these subjects.

For example, when children speak and listen to one another, they're using and expanding their vocabularies and learning important lessons in communication. When they move over, under, around, and through pieces of equipment, these prepositions take on meaning and relevance to them because children need to experience concepts to understand them fully. When children invent stories to act out, they develop skills essential to writing. These are some of the ways in which the language arts are addressed on the playground.

When children keep score, they're dealing with important mathematics concepts: counting, quantitative ideas (which number is bigger?; which score is highest?), and simple computation. When they decide on and act out a series of events, they're tackling the mathematics concept of sequencing. When they play hopscotch and jump rope, math is involved.

Throughout it all, the children are working together, interacting in numerous and varied ways and thereby learning valuable lessons in social studies. As children learn about themselves and about each other, they discover how they're alike and different. They explore feelings and rules for living, make decisions, and solve problems. Learned, too, is the ability to deal with conflict. In other words, children learn how to be part of and work together in a community.

Additionally, much of the learning that takes place outside is related to science. Classroom themes typically falling into the science category include the human body and such nature-related topics as the seasons, weather, plants, and animals. Where better to experience these subjects than in the outdoors?

Consider, too, such scientific concepts as evaporation (learned when children "paint" the sidewalk or side of the school with water), flotation (easily demonstrated with a bottle of bubbles and a wand), balance and stability (the lesson of the seesaw), gravity (why doesn't the ball stay in the air no matter how hard we throw it?), and action and reaction (obvious during a game of tug-of-war).

Of course, we can "teach" children these concepts through the use of lectures, books, and/or demonstrations. Or we can let children really learn them ? in such a way that the lessons remain with them for a lifetime. The research shows that, for the majority of individuals, learning by doing is the most effective. In fact, the more senses involved in the learning process, the more individuals retain.

What Else the Research Says

Recess also contributes more indirectly to the learning of academics. As far back as 1885 and 1901, the research showed that both children and adults learn better and more quickly when their efforts are distributed (breaks are included) than when concentrated (work is conducted in longer periods). In fact, because young children don't process most information as effectively as older individuals (due to the immaturity of their nervous systems and their lack of experience), they can especially benefit from breaks.

We also have to consider the value of the outdoors. The outside light stimulates the pineal gland, which is the part of the brain that helps regulate our biological clock, is vital to the immune system, and simply makes us feel happier. Outside light triggers the synthesis of vitamin D. And a number of studies have demonstrated that it increases academic learning and productivity.

Young children learn much through their senses, and the outdoors is a virtual wonderland for the senses. There are different and incredible things for the children to see (insects, clouds, and shadows), to hear (traffic sounds, birdsongs, leaves rustling in the wind), to smell (flowers and the rain-soaked ground), to touch (a fuzzy caterpillar or the bark of a tree), and even to taste (newly fallen snow, a raindrop, or a freshly picked blueberry). Children who spend much of their time acquiring experiences through television, computers, and even books are using only two senses (hearing and sight), and this can seriously affect their perceptual abilities.

Then, too, there's the aesthetic value of the outdoors. Because the natural world is filled with amazing sights, sounds, and textures, it's the perfect resource for the development of aesthetics in young children. Since aesthetic awareness means a heightened sensitivity to the beauty around us, it's something that can serve children well at those times when, as adolescents and adults, the world seems less than beautiful.

Rae Pica is a children's physical activity specialist and the author of Your Active Child: How to Boost Physical, Emotional, and Cognitive Development through Age-Appropriate Activity (McGraw-Hill, 2003). Rae speaks to parent and education groups throughout North America. Visit her and read more articles at http://www.movingandlearning.com.

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