By: Dr. Debbie Rhea, 2014
I have talked for a couple of years now about the need for more structured (physical education) and unstructured (recess) physical activity/play in the K-12 school setting. Children’s brains need active, unstructured, outdoor time throughout the day to allow for several things: healthy social and emotional development, stimulation of brain activity, increased oxygen and glucose to fuel the brain, and continued building of highways where the retention of knowledge exists. The trend over the past two decades has been to eliminate recess in the schools in order to teach skills & strategies associated with literacy, math, and science. Furthermore, U.S. state and national policy makers and grant providers are beginning to emphasize a need for longer than seven hour school days that we have presently to increase school accountability, student testing procedures, and the belief that time could be better spent on academics. In other countries like Finland, Japan, and England, recess is not only expected throughout the day, but in Finland, they even expect the school day to be much less time in the lower grades (K-2) than the middle schools (4.5 hours vs 6.5 hours) and still require recess every 45 minutes. Other countries get it, why can’t the U.S.? This is a disturbing phenomenon for children to be required to sit in a chair all day and even withold recess from children who misbehave in order to teach them more curriculum. This phenomenon has no serious research to back it up, and is actually counterproductive to increasing the academic achievements of students (Skrupskelis, 2000). Professional organizations, educators, administrators, teachers, and parents are becoming increasingly concerned with this present trend. Even though we know all of this, we continue to give lip service to the idea, but no one in the public school sector is willing to go out on the limb to make it happen. Why?
A couple of thoughts we all need to consider.
One is that money allocated for schools from state and federal funds based on test scores and attendance rather than the health of our children drives educational decisions. If our children drove the decisions, then we wouldn’t care what politicians, textbook companies, and educational agencies demanded and would create more chances throughout the day for unstructured outdoor play for children to explore, create, and socialize. Research shows that the fundamental requirement for any child is to move. The brain will then work efficiently for learning to take place. Instead, these powerful entities demand that we extend the day, sit for longer periods of time, and continue to prepare for a test. So far, the test scores continue to lag, the children continue to burnout, and the spark of life continues to go out.
Second, we have become so consumed over the past 30 years with comparing ourselves globally to other countries academically, that we have lost sight of the fundamentals of life. It’s really not all about a test score. Through teaching to a test, the children have lost the ability to critically think. It’s bigger than a test score. We learn much in life from social experiences, solving problems with different solutions, and making mistakes. We can not truly measure what children learn through a test score. We have a generation of children presently who are afraid to fail, have high anxiety and stress, cannot finish something they start, have no regard or respect for life or people, and want something for nothing.
The only way to change the educational problems we have is to trade quantity for quality of curriculum we try to cover in a year, allow students to explore through play, teach character development regularly, and redefine the rigidity we have grown to embrace in the classroom and on the playground to a more explorative environment. Language arts, math, science, & social studies should be balanced in a child’s world with physical education, art, music, languages, and technology. All of this content is important, but more does not equal better in this case. As Aristotle states, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Thinking that we have to have language arts, math, science, and social studies every day is the wrong way to think. The collection of experiences is greater than each experience alone.
We have the answer for changing the structure of the school to embrace unstructured outdoor recess, adding character development weekly, and backing off the amount of curriculum needed to be successful academically. It’s the LiiNK Project. The results are in and they are very good.