Nestled between these blockbuster stories, though, was a very interesting article in yesterday's New York Times about, of all things, recess. The article details how a number of schools across the country are imposing more structure on recess by hiring "recess coaches," or by replacing recess altogether with "midday fitness programs." Instead of being free to goof off, play impromptu games, or chat with friends, students in these "new recess" schools are required to play structured games, usually involving a heavy dose of physical exercise.
Schools that have moved to impose some structure on recess certainly have laudable goals, like requiring physical activity, promoting sportsmanship, and reducing the inevitable injuries that arise from unstructured play. And in an era of record childhood obesity, it's hard to fault schools for doing anything to get kids moving. But some are questioning these recess modifications, particularly in light of a recent study in the Journal of Pediatrics that tied recess (of the traditional variety) to better academic performance, concentration, and classroom behavior.
It could be, of course, that students who get ample recess time recess are simply more likely to engage in physical activity--and that physical activity itself increases concentration and academic performance. (Studies of adults have regularly found a link between aerobic exercise and concentration). But some academics argue that children benefit from the unstructured nature of recess. Without a break from rules and structure, argues Dr. Romina M. Barros, "you don't have time for your brain to relax." And, according to Dr. Andrea Faber Taylor, people can only engage in "directed attention"--reading books, doing math problems, etc--for a finite period of time. Simply put, if the brain isn't given time to recharge, it will wear itself out.
If scientists are right about the finite nature of "directed attention"1, an unstructured recess period seems particularly important for children who attend schools with rigidly structured classroom settings. If students, for example, are constantly learning test prep strategies and taking practice exams, it stands to reason that their minds could benefit from a break. And students almost assuredly won't get that break if they're thinking about how to play a game correctly or worrying about breaking the rules.
But if a mental break is really so important to academic performance, it seems to me that we're putting too much of a burden on recess. Young students should also have time to let their mind wander in the classroom--whether it's through art, through unstructured play, or by having the opportunity to really lose oneself in a good book. If schools are wearing down students' brains with seven consecutive hours of directed attention, maybe the answer lies not with recess, but with changing the way in which schools are delivering classroom instruction.