I have published a number of pieces over the last year or so on the importance of allowing young children to play in school rather than sit for hours at a desk laboring over academic tasks. Here is a new post making the case for why less class time — and more play time — will actually lead to a better education for kids, however counter-intuitive that may sound. It was written by Debbie Rhea, an associate dean of the Harris College of Nursing and Health Sciences and director of the LiiNk Project at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. The LiiNk Project is described in the post.

Debbie Rhea:
It seems counter-intuitive to think that less classroom time and more outdoor play would lead to a better education for kids. But longer time on task doesn't equate to better results, only greater burnout.

For years, educators have tried different unsuccessful strategies - more testing, more instruction - to reverse these trends. The answer, however, is not more class time. It's more play.

Other countries have figured this out. In Finland, for example, students take a 15-minute break for outdoor play after every 45 minutes of classroom time. In East Asia, most primary schools give their students a 10-minute break after 40 minutes or so of instruction.

Here in the United States, however, the average first-grader spends seven hours a day at school, sometimes without any recess, much less one outdoors and unstructured.

Kids are built to move, and having more time for unstructured, outdoor play is essentially like a reset button. It not only helps to break up the day, but it allows kids to blow off steam and apply what is taught in the classroom to a play environment where the mind-body connection can flourish.

When any human sits for longer than about 20 minutes, the physiology of the brain and body changes, robbing the brain of needed oxygen and glucose, or brain fuel. The brain essentially just falls asleep when we sit for too long. Movement and activity stimulate the neurons that fire in the brain. When we sit, those neurons aren't firing.

Study after study has affirmed the importance of play in children's physical and mental health. It helps boost language development, problem solving, risk management and independent learning skills. Play is linked to improvements in academic skills, classroom behavior, healthy emotional attitudes and better adjustment to school life. So why aren't our kids spending more time at recess?

Our research intervention, the LiiNk Project (Let's Inspire Innovation 'N Kids), launched last year in two Texas private schools. It showed that adding extra recess can improve student discipline, focus and academic success without increasing the length of the school day or taking time away from classroom activities.

Students were given two 15-minute unstructured outdoor play breaks in the morning and again in the afternoon, along with three 15-minute character development lessons per week. Most of the "extra" time for these recess periods was found by weaving the 20-minute character development lesson into the already planned curriculum and by tightening up "transition time" (putting things away and lining up to leave the classroom) and redirect time (redirecting off-task behaviors).

The results, based on two years of data collection with the intervention and control schools, showed that:
  • The children looked forward to each recess and demonstrated social growth and development through the change in peer interactions from pre to post assessments.
  • Transition time from classroom to recess and back decreased from three to four minutes each way to less than one minute each way with the intervention schools.
  • Children were more disciplined and focused in the classroom. Off-task behaviors like fidgeting decreased in the intervention schools consistently by 25 percent while the control school students maintained higher percentages of off-task behaviors from pre to post assessments.
  • Intervention children improved by 30 percent on attentional focus while the control school children changed only slightly.
  • Academic performance on reading and math significantly improved.
  • Misbehavior during recess significantly decreased.
This fall, the LiiNk Project intervention will be launched in four Texas public schools with grades K and 1.

As a country, we aren't moving - both figuratively and literally. Kids' access to physical education has declined, obesity rates through the U.S. continue to rise, and test scores remain average at best. It's time to change that. We're showing it can be done.