Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=183000
Story Retrieval Date: 5/23/2013 1:59:02 PM CST
Researchers say taking a break from class to run around and play is an effective way to improve student performance. Proposed Illinois legislation may make recess mandatory in Chicago elementary schools.
Silent schoolyards: Recess linked to academic success
Kids play on a school playground on their day off.
Graphic by Sara J. Martinez/MEDILL. Data from 2009-2010 Gallup Poll.
Research shows that kids and recess add up to better academic performance, yet recess isn't even mentioned in Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel’s plan for reform at Chicago Public Schools.
Emanuel's plan calls for new schools, new teachers and new curriculum to support innovation in rethinking education.
And CPS promotes recess on its website even though the break isn't mandatory for schools and nearly two-thirds of elementary schools don't offer it.
Recess is part of the school day in only 37 percent of Chicago public elementary schools, according to published reports. Yet numerous experts said it is a proven and common-sense way to improve academic performance and concentration.
Recess reform is in the works, however, with proposed state legislation and a state task force promoting mandatory recess in Chicago schools. Legislative action could come up for a vote in the Illinois House as early as next week.
A Chicago Story
Stephan Morton, 16, enjoyed recess while he attended the Choir Academy Charter School of Chicago, but he didn’t always have that luxury.
His mother, Lynn, transferred him to the Choir Academy from Milton Brunson Math & Science Specialty Elementary School on Chicago’s West Side about six years ago so he could be in a better academic environment. It was around this time that Lynn Morton began campaigning for mandatory recess through the Community Organizing and Family Issues Power-Pac.
“We started out by looking at discipline instances in public schools and noticed that schools didn't have recess and children didn't have a break in the day,” said Morton, co-chair emeritus of the Power-Pac. “High discipline was due in part to them not having any breaks.”
Choir Academy did not have recess during the school day when Stephan started there -- something Lynn found ineffective for her son’s learning.
“His school day was from eight to five,” Morton said. “He was really structured and would be really tired because they didn't have any down time.”
But shortly after Stephan accompanied his mother to Springfield to petition in front of the state legislature for changes in policy regarding recess, the Choir Academy added it back into the school day.
Lynn said she attributes the change in part to the presence her son had at school.
“Stephan was one of the children that stood in front of the education committee and gave testimony as to how and why they want recess,” she said. “He came back to school and was saying, ‘You know my mom's getting us recess.’ ”
As Stephan finished elementary school at the Choir Academy, Lynn said she saw a clear change in his demeanor.
“He was more focused because he had time to get away,” she said, and he was able to make friends easily. “They had time to get to know each other outside of the classroom and make that connection.”
Beyond changes at her son’s campus, Morton’s grassroots work with Power-Pac and other Chicago parents has resulted in the formation of a state task force, headed by state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) that will look into how recess might be implemented in Illinois schools.
While most parents, administrators and school staff support the idea of having recess in all elementary schools, the issue with Chicago Public Schools is that reintroducing recess could either extend the school day or take away from the only break teachers get during the day, according to Tracy Occomy Crowder, senior organizer for Community Organizing and Family Issues.
The CPS website does encourage elementary schools to include recess in their schedule, but it’s an optional choice left up to the administrators at each individual school.
No one seems to oppose the idea of recess for children. It slowly disappeared from schools with changes in staffing and an increased focus on academics, according to a 2009-2010 Gallup poll of 1,951 U.S. elementary school principals.
The issue is, however, “how to bring it back and what degree to bring it back,” Occomy Crowder said.
Despite the implications it would have on the school day, many schools might have to figure this out soon.
State Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago) is ready to start right away. She is sponsoring House Bill 288 that would require Chicago schools to implement at least 10 minutes of recess a day for all students.
“I will take one bite of the apple at a time, and I'll start with the city,” she said.
Flowers said she hopes to call the legislation to the house floor for a vote again next week.
This is something she believes needs to be done -- the research shows recess will improve schools, so it’s about time schools bring it back, she said.
“I think if the city and the state want to save money in regards to education, in regards to health care, in regards to eliminating crimes, we should bring back something as simple as recess,” she said.
The positive effect of recess has also been widely researched. Simply, physical and emotional health is necessary to academic achievement and can be developed during recess.
“One of the things that we know is being physically active can contribute to our brain chemistry that helps us learn better,” said Charles Basch, a professor of health education at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York.
A recess period that facilitates students’ active play would very quickly begin to affect a child’s brain, said Charles Hillman, an associate professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Hillman’s research found that children 9 to 10 years old who were physically active for 20 minutes performed better immediately after at cognitive tasks, math and reading comprehension, he said.
He also saw an improvement in brain function, based on measurements of electrical brain waves, and these results lasted about an hour, he said.
In the short-term, blood flow to the brain also increases after exercise, said Darla Castelli, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin who researches physical activity and the brain.
When children run around and play, blood flows away from the brain and to their bodies. After they stop and get back to work, the blood goes to the prefrontal cortex, she said.
“It then allocates more working memory toward a certain task,” Castelli said. “We see it as attention. Kids will be a little bit calmer, more attentive and focused.”
Physical activity also has long-term benefits for the brain, she said.
“What’s really interesting is that there will be a stimulation of the hippocampal region of the brain,” Castelli said. This stimulation actually causes the brain neurons to grow, changing how a child processes information.
In the long run, a physically fit and active child can respond more accurately and more quickly to information, which can lead to better academic performance compared to a child who is sedentary, she said.
Both Hillman and Castelli recommend breaking up physical activity for kids throughout the day.
In addition to being a chance for kids to exercise, recess needs to be a time that promotes social development and cooperation but does not tolerate bullying, Basch said. Then, it can also help build camaraderie among students, he said.
“We know that the kids who are more connected to their school do better in school,” Basch said. Their ability to achieve socially and academically correlates with their ability to feel a part of things.
It’s important for children to laugh, have a good time and keep their blood flowing while learning to socialize and work together in groups, said Kevin Navas, a physical education teacher in Chicago Ridge School District 127.5.
Navas chooses to supervise recess, for extra pay, at Ridge Lawn Elementary School.
“I do a lot of team-building games,” he said. “Not only do they have structured activities, but they learn life skills and get to be active. For that full 30 to 35-minute period, they get to expel energy.”
While most Chicago elementary schools don’t offer students that midday break, Whittier Elementary in Pilsen does. Whittier P.E. teacher Julie Carter said the school keeps recess in the schedule because it “values wellness.”
Carter, the Chicago district president of the Illinois Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, said the organization is concerned about the physical health of children in Chicago schools. While the group’s biggest focus is on standardizing physical education across the district, it does support recess.
“Especially in neighborhoods where it’s not always safe to play outside, the only time they can get physical activity is in the school setting,” Carter said. “Recess is vitally important for kids to be active.”
A Spectrum of Issues
Some 87 percent of Chicago public school students come from low-income households, and 64 percent did not meet state academic standards last year, according to 2009-2010 data from the Illinois State Board of Education.
In districts like Chicago's, looking at the full spectrum of a child’s well-being is even more pivotal to ensure academic and lifetime success, Basch said.
Carter, who taught in a suburban school for nine years before coming to CPS in 2004, said she agrees.
“It’s a problem in the nation, but it hits the city the worst because we’re not getting daily P.E.,” she said.
Further, many students don’t have the access to a safe play environment or the money to participate in some activities.
“That’s why the school is such a great place,” Carter said.
While schools hold the potential to be a place to facilitate students’ physical and emotional development, the focus on academics often overshadows those benefits.
Basch said there’s no evidence that taking time from recess or physical education for academics makes any difference.
More than 80 percent believe “recess has a positive impact on academic achievement,” and two-thirds believe “students listen better after recess and are more focused in class,” according to the Gallup poll of elementary school principals.
Still, the same poll shows the erosion of recess nationwide in favor of academics.
In the U.S., 40 percent of school districts have cut or reduced recess in favor of expanding time spent on core content, such as reading, math and science.
“Part of the goals of schools should be to foster overall growth and development from a cognitive, physical and emotional perspective,” Basch said.