U.S. Schools Are Blowing It By Not Giving Kids Enough Downtime

by Mike Julianelle
Originally Published: 
Two boys and two girls running across a grass field in an U.S. School
Image via Shutterstock

After spending a year working in Finland, a teacher discovers what American parents have long understood: we push our kids too hard

Timothy Walker only spent a year teaching elementary school kids in Finland, but it took him less than a week to realize that the Finns were onto something. Their school schedule is more effective, because it’s less intense.

But if you have kids, you already knew that.

In a piece the teacher wrote about his experiences teaching abroad, which was republished by KQED News, he discusses the typical Finnish schedule – “students in Finland normally take a fifteen-minute break for every forty-five minutes of instruction” – and his initial attempts at implementing the U.S. model he was used to.

It didn’t work out. Quickly, one of his fifth graders expressed his inability to handle the pace: “’I think I’m going to explode! I’m not used to this schedule…’ It was only the third day of school, and I was already pushing a student to the breaking point.”

So he switched gears. When in Finland…

The results were immediate. The students no longer faded at the end of lessons, no longer moped when returning to class. They were more enthusiastic about their lessons, and, most importantly, more focused.

For a minute, Walker thought he’d discovered a secret. “But then I remembered that Finns have known this for years—they’ve been providing breaks to their students since the 1960s.”

Walker delved into research to confirm his findings, and found plenty material to back him up. Multiple books and papers from psychologists and professors and educators detailed the benefits of plentiful breaks and shorter classroom sessions, and compared the benefits of that approach to the negative effects of America’s punishing pace.

He concedes that the current educational structure in the United States doesn’t give teachers the freedom to fully embrace the Finnish model, but there are ways. He writes about American researcher and kinesiologist Debbie Rhea’s research project in multiple states, in which she’s added multiple breaks and already seen positive effects.

Walker doesn’t think it’s just about playtime. “I’ve concluded that the primary benefit of Finnish breaks is in the way it keeps kids focused by refreshing their brains.”

One look at the comments under the link on NPR’s Facebook page and it’s clear American parents have known this for years. Our kids are getting burnt out!

Every time I attend a parent-teacher session about my first-grader, the teachers praise his ability and then bemoan his lack of focus and constant fidgeting. Then they send him home with a bunch of homework. Dude’s six. I can barely sit still all day and I’ve been doing it my entire life. Greg on Facebook knows what I’m talking about: “Breaks? in America? Ha! No Johnny hey back to work so you can get used to the minf numbing office lifestyle in your future.”

Anyone with young kids knows how closely their mental state is linked to their physical one. Miss a meal, miss a nap, and it’s explosion time. The same principle is at work when it comes to keeping them focused. They need breaks, not just to expend the energy that gets them shifting in their seats, but to give their developing brains time to catch up and settle down.

The amount of recess in American schools has been shrinking for years, and the negative effects are obvious. As are the positive ones.

Obvious to everyone except the people in charge.

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