More playtime equals better grades for kids

Short stuff: Health roundup

Think finding a school boasting high test scores or low teacher-child ratios ensures your child will succeed in school? A study released in the journal “Pediatrics” recommends parents add one more criterion when looking for quality schools: at least 15 minutes of recess each day.

Researchers in New York found that children who have 15 or more minutes of free play time behaved better in the classroom. Better behavior equals improved learning, says Dr. Romina Barros, Albert Einstein College of Medicine assistant professor.

“If the behavior is better, then students are better able to attend to what the teacher is saying,” Barros says. “With better participation and attention, you retain more information.”

Barros and her colleagues studied the amount of recess given to more than 10,000 third-graders. They grouped children who had 15 or more minutes of recess-a length of time based on national recommendations-and then looked at how teachers rated overall classroom behavior. Classes that had at least a 15-minute recess behaved better than those who had no or minimal break.

Barros says the study supports the common-sense belief that no one, especially children, can focus all day without some physical activity. She said she was “overwhelmed about how many kids did not get recess at all.”

Thirty percent of children in the study received less than 15 minutes each day. Also, physical education classes for most of these children were limited to once or twice per week. Nine percent had no physical education at all.

The study found children from disadvantaged backgrounds are much less likely to have enough recess time. Those children were more likely to be black, come from families with lower incomes, live in large cities and attend public schools.

Two factors likely impact this, Barros says. First, schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods are hesitant to allow their students outside for fear of exposing them to violence. Second, she said, the No Child Left Behind Act added pressure on school districts to devote more of the school day to academics.

In recent years, those pushing to save physical education and free time have become more vocal, citing the surge in childhood obesity. Barros says that since the study was published, interest has been intense.

“People are now understanding that taking away recess does not work,” she says. “And parents are getting involved to say there needs to be some reforms.”

She hopes this interest can fuel further research into which specific types of recess-indoor or outdoor, structured or free play-benefit children’s behavior and learning the most. Barros believes parents, pediatricians and school systems should push to include physical activity in the daily curriculum of every child.

“And it should not be taken away as punishment,” she adds. “We don’t deny a child to go to math class as punishment; recess is not something to be taken away either.”

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