Demise Of Playtime

Some school districts are reducing or eliminating recess. But with childhood obesity at an all-time high, health experts say the trend is a dangerous one

December 01, 2006|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,Special to the Sun

In the farthest corner of the playground at Sandymount Elementary School in Finksburg, the fifth-graders are in the midst of a soccer game. They're running and pushing, falling and getting up again. They hit the ball with everything they have available - heads, knees, shoulders, elbows.

They don't keep score, but that's not the point. They have only 15 minutes, and they're trying to make the most of it. For some youngsters, it's a chance to practice for a community soccer league game that day. But for many, those 15 minutes are the only opportunity for physical activity during the school day.

In a growing number of elementary schools, even those 15 minutes of playtime are threatened. Roughly 40 percent of U.S. school districts either have eliminated recess or are considering eliminating it.

Even more ominous, child health experts argue, is the national trend toward banning physically vigorous, run-and-chase games such as tag and kickball. Eliminating games that increase heart rates and improve hand-eye coordination, critics say, will fuel already high childhood obesity rates.

"Imagine a child's circulatory system as if it's a river. Rivers that slow down become stagnant, diseased," says Rhonda Clements, a former president of the American Association for the Child's Right to Play. Clements, a professor of education at Manhattanville College in New York, has written or edited nine books on the value of child's play.

"If we continue to eliminate physically vigorous games that help strengthen children's circulation, their strength and muscular conditioning, then just like a river, their bodies become susceptible to disease," she says.

Running at recess was banned last year in Broward County, Fla. In October, officials at an elementary school south of Boston banned tag and touch football. Elementary schools in Cheyenne, Wyo., and Spokane, Wash., banned tag during recess. And this past summer, Portland, Ore., public schools eliminated swings from its playgrounds, along with merry-go-rounds, tube slides, track rides, arch climbers and teeter-totters.

Some educators call these extreme reactions to overblown concerns.

"We never even considered getting rid of recess," Sandymount principal Monica Smith says. "It's too important. The kids get recharged. They get back into the classrooms ready to learn. I wish we could give them more time. But with all the other subjects we're mandated to have, all we have left for recess is 15 minutes."

A combination of forces has produced the slow decline in recess across the nation.

Public school systems are increasingly afraid of lawsuits from parents of children who get hurt on the playground. That fear of liability, combined with the pressure to prepare students for high-stakes testing, have spurred thousands of schools to cut recess and physical education - usually in favor of increasing math and reading instruction.

Critics say that's unwise on two counts.

"Recess is being cut out so children will have more time to study for the tests, and we know that test-driven instruction doesn't allow time for creative thinking and learning for children," says Joe L. Frost, a retired professor of education at the University of Texas-Austin and an expert on childhood play.

"On top of that, the few schools that continue to keep recess have really dumbed the playground down," he says. "We do need ways of protecting kids, but it's terribly unfortunate that these tag and light contact activities are being cut out. Active games that raise the heart rate are so important for development of strength and coordination."

Early childhood development specialists, including Frost and Clements, gathered in Washington in May to discuss the value of play and its beneficial effect on children's social and cognitive development.

In addition to getting exercise, they argued, children use recess to establish democracies on playgrounds. They determine each other's roles, naming team captains and referees among themselves, and establish rules. These are valuable lessons for developing personal responsibility, experts say.

Frost and Clements also point to research suggesting that physically active children perform well academically. Over the past three years, studies in California and Illinois have found that increased levels of physical activity have a positive effect on academic achievement.

But with the government researchers reporting that childhood obesity has doubled in the past 30 years, the argument for keeping and strengthening recess is no longer focused strictly on social and mental development. Recess helps keep children fit, proponents say.

"I don't think we should forget that between ages 3 and 12 children experience the greatest physical growth," Clements says. "They're climbing, hanging, running, dodging. If we take that away, and children return home to a sedentary lifestyle, then we shouldn't be surprised that we have a child obesity epidemic on our hands."

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