20 reasons why 20 minutes of recess is vital for N.J. school kids

School recess ensures that every kid gets outdoor play, which, "decreases stress, fatigue, injury, and depression and increases range of motion, agility, coordination, balance, and flexibility."

By Kim McCall

A new law requiring 20 minutes of daily playtime for Garden State elementary school students will no longer go into effect this school year. Instead, a one-year delay will give schools more time to prepare academic schedules.

Despite the delay, this law is a win for New Jersey kids. That’s the takeaway from a recent American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) clinical study review, which details the wide-ranging benefits of play for children. From the AAP, here are 20 reasons why those 20 minutes of recess are vital–and why the quality of that playtime is critical.

Play supercharges academic learning. Play time:

  1. Supports math skills: In one study, extra math prep early in life was not related to 8th grade math scores — but extra play time was. Kids develop number and spatial skills through play.
  2. Supports language acquisition: Pretend play increases language sophistication and abstract reasoning.
  3. Catalyzes creativity: Kids who played actively an hour each day were better able to think creatively.
  4. Develops social-emotional skills: Through play, kids learn collaboration, negotiation, conflict resolution, decision-making, leadership . . . the list goes on. Social skills are also academic: third-grade social-emotional skills correlate with 8th grade reading and math scores.
  5. Cultivate the joy of learning: Play gets kids’ curiosity going. Curiosity supports memory and learning.

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Play builds foundational skills for school. Play helps kids:

  1. Avoid sensory overload: Active play helps growing brains process all the information coming from kids’ senses.
  2. Decrease hyperactivity: Some researchers believe play deprivation contributes to a rise in ADHD. Active play helps kids regulate attention.
  3. Enjoy school: “Bored children will not learn well,” says the report. For academic success, kids need to be engrossed in what they are doing. Play helps them practice.
  4. Develop self-control: Play teaches “executive function,” the group of skills that help kids, “switch gears and transition from drawing with crayons to getting dressed for school,” without meltdowns.
  5. Builds 21st century skills: “Soft skills” or “21st century skills” help adults succeed; they are all about executive function.

Play makes kids more resilient. Play,

  1. Eases stress: In one study, play decreased anxiety in nervous children more than listening to a story. Recess helps kids de-stress and return to baseline so they can learn.
  2. Helps kids help each other: Another study found that those who are anxious can become “relaxed and calm after rough-and-tumble play” with someone who is not anxious. During a healthy school recess, kids build each other up.
  3. Builds trust: Stable relationships with adults also buffer against adversity. Adults play with kids to build trust.
  4. Supports exploration: Sometimes, schools cut playtime due to safety concerns. But all schools can create safe recess environments that encourage developmentally-appropriate risks and build kids’ agency.

Schools have a unique opportunity to support play. School recess:

  1. Makes up for lost time: The UN recognizes play as a right for children, but from 1981 to 1997, kids spent 25 percent less time playing. While this law supports twenty minutes of play per day, quality is just as important as quantity.
  1. Lets kids play outside: Ninety-four percent of parents worry their neighborhoods are not safe for play. School recess ensures that every kid gets outdoor play, which, “decreases stress, fatigue, injury, and depression and increases range of motion, agility, coordination, balance, and flexibility.”  
  2. Scaffold breakthroughs: Recess is an opportunity for guided play: “a child-led, joyful activity in which adults craft the environment to optimize learning.” Educators can intentionally shape recess–like by introducing conflict resolution tools — to help students learn at the edge of their current abilities.
  3. Promotes device-free social interactions: Screen-free playtime during the day allows kids to develop interpersonal skills.
  4. Preserves traditional games: “Familiar games such as ‘Simon Says’ or ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ ask children to control their individual actions or impulses,” says the report. Other classic games also build skills, and recess is where those games are passed on.
  5. Breaks down barriers: Perhaps the original goal of recess: according to the AAP, recess in the 1800s was a way for schools to encourage friendships across different immigrant groups.

Kim McCall is the executive director of Playworks New York/New Jersey, which helps 35 schools across New Jersey provide safe and healthy play for 16,000 kids

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