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Rebecca Lee is one parent who fought, successfully, to get recess reinstated at her daughter’s elementary school in Virginia.

“Our school board had an unofficial anti-recess policy,” Lee explains. “They wanted to use school time in a more productive manner. The problem is, children are not computers, and we have to teach in the ways that they will learn best.”

Providing regular breaks for recess, which is now mandated by the Virginia Board of Education, is a key part of that strategy. For other parents hoping to advocate for recess in their local school districts, Lee offers some concrete advice for parents, much of it based on her own personal experience:

  • Talk to other parents
  • Form Partnerships with policy makers
  • Participate in your local school board meetings
  • Enlist the help of experts
  • Educate yourself

If you’re old enough to have school age children, chances are you remember a time when virtually all kids had recess, often twice a day in elementary school. How could things have changed so dramatically in just a few decades?

“Recess started to decline in the late 1980s, when so many educational mandates started coming down,” explains Jarrett, who is president of the advocacy organization, the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play.

“It got worse with No Child Left Behind. With the pressure on testing, schools found little time left for anything like art, music, or even science that wasn’t being tested. And recess was considered a waste of time.”

As the problem grows more pervasive, experts like Jarrett have observed that many of today’s children don’t even mention the lack of recess to parents. The reason: They don’t even know the word recess.

While the research shows that it’s critical for children to play, Jarrett stresses that the positive impacts of recess can be maximized–if only schools would the the timing right.

The problem: Many schools (including Tyler’s elementary school in Philadephia) schedule recess before or after lunch, or as the last class of the day.

Jarrett says, “Those aren’t the best times, because both lunch and recess should be used to form breaks in the day.”

Think about it: For a working adult, that’s like scheduling one 15 minute coffee break immediately before lunch and the second 15 minutes before you are scheduled to go home.

“Clearly, play seems to be an essential part of social and brain development,” says Panksepp. “It’s only after the need for play has been met that animals are ready to move on to more mature stages of development.”

This research has convinced Panksepp that the restlessness seen in children with ADHD may simply be the children’s way of expressing an innate need for more play. Instead of medicating children to stifle their behavior, Panksepp argues for providing kids with more opportunity to meet that need. In fact, he believes that this could be the key to ensuring their development into focused, socially adept adults.

We don’t expect adults to engage in highly focused mental activity for hours on end without a break. Breaks (in the form of recess) are no less important for kids, and Panksepp’s research suggests that they’re even more important for kids with ADHD.

The idea that play might be exceptionally important for kids with ADD and ADHD is supported not just by observational studies in the classroom. It is also supported by some intriguing research.

To study the relationship between play and ADD, Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Washington State University, manipulated the brains of young rat pups to make them mimic the brains of children with ADD and ADHD. (Such children often have slightly smaller frontal lobes than children with longer attention spans, though they generally catch up before reaching adulthood.)

His findings: The rats with laboratory-induced DD played more frequently than rats whose brains had not been altered.

Panksepp then divided the rats into two groups: Those who were allowed to play as much as they wanted and those who were allowed only limited play. The results were even more surprising. That rats that wereallowed ample opportunities for play did not become more wild, rambunctious or violent. Instead, they simply played normally and grew up to be non-hyperactive and socially well-adjusted–at least by rat standards.

However, the hyperactive rats that had only limited opportunities for play grew into rather rambunctious rats that had difficulty reading social cues from other rats.

Jarrett has several theories on why recess may be so beneficial for learning and focusing.

First, having breaks for recess essentially breaks the long school day up into shorter segments. “Brain research shows that breaking tasks up into pieces and providing a change of pace in between enables the brain to focus better,” she says.

Jarrett also stresses that there’s strong medical evidence that exercise has a positive impact on brain chemistry, making it easier to think clearly and focus afterwards. Adults with desk jobs requiring intense concentrations may instinctively do this when they get up to take a walk around the block to “clear their minds.” For kids, recess provides a similar opportunity.

And for kids with ADD or ADHD, having a recess break provides them with a critical opportunity to expend their excess energy, making it easier to focus afterwards.

That’s certainly been the case for Tyler, the fifth grader with ADD. “It’s easier for me to focus after recess because I’m not as antsy anymore,” he says. “I’ve had my fun and now it’s time to do my work. I think recess helps us a lot.”

According to Olga Jarrett, associate professor of Early Childhood Education at Georgia State University, there’s ample evidence that recess and other forms of unstructured play are critical for a child’s social, emotional, physical, and psychological development.

Jarrett, whose main areas of research include recess, play, and science has also found that recess helps children stay physically in-place and entally on-task while in the classroom. Over several months, Jarrett and numerous assistants monitored the behaviors of two classes of kids, comparing their behaviors at the same time each day.

In one experiement, Jarrett and her assistants monitored the behaviors of one class of kids, comparing their behaviors at the same time each day over the course of several months. The only variable: Some days the students had had a recess break before the class started, while other days they had already been working for a few hours.

Jarrett and her team found that recess helped children keep their bodies still and minds on-task while in the classroom. “On the days the students had recess before class, the children were more focused and less fidgety,” explains Jarrett. “Following a recess break, the children were more likely to be doing what they were supposed to be doing–whether it was reading or writing, looking at the teacher, or listening to another child recite.”

The following series is an article from MSN Health and Fitness written by Lisa Farino

Before 10-year-old Tyler began taking medication for ADD, he and his mother had devised a creative way to help him focus on his homework. After school, he’d run laps around the yard before sitting down to complete his math homework. And if he really got antsy or unable to focus, it was back to the yard for a few more laps.

Tyler-a smart, articulate fifth-grader who enjoys every subject at school besides music-explains why these running breaks were so helpful: “Before I started taking medicine, it was hard to sit in a seat for a long time.”

It seems Tyler and his mother may have been onto something. Ample research suggests that all children, especially those with ADD or ADHD, need school recesses and other unstructured play time to function at their best.

That presents a growing problem for kids, as it’s estimated that 40 percent of elementary schools across the country have cut back on–or have eliminated–recess in the past decade.

The need for play isn’t being met after school either, as time that used to be devoted to unstructured (often outdoor) play is now being replaced by an increasing number of structured activities (such as piano and gymnastics lessons) or passive indoor activities like watching TV, playing video games, or surfing the internet.

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