The research is incontrovertible. Kids need recess.
Kids need recess for any number of reasons. We can use the good old American arguments: a 2010 report by the Centers for Disease Control showed that recess correlated with higher concentration. Other studies the paper examined “found a positive relationship between recess and on-task behavior.” Another quoted study “observed that children were less fidgety, less listless, more focused, and more on task when they had recess compared with when they did not have recess.”
Recess really helps children’s attention. The same CDC roundup found that children who had longer recess times had better attention rates than children who worked for longer periods without a break (this should be a no-brainer for any adult who’s ever done a job of any kind). Kids also behaved better after recess. The Atlantic notes that even a paltry 15-minute recess was enough to make third-graders behave better. A 2009 study published by Pediatrics found that 8- and 9-year olds with at least 15 minutes of recess exhibited better behavior.
One more time for the people in the back: KIDS NEED RECESS.
“There is substantial evidence that physical activity can help improve academic achievement, including grades and standardized test scores,” says the CDC. And the American Academy of Pediatrics goes so far as to say that, “Recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.”
So we know that kids need recess, but what about when it’s wet and cold outside?
Usually, schools resort to “indoor recess”: drawing at desks, playing games like heads up, 7-Up, or wandering around the classroom were favorites in my elementary school. Some schools may let kids loose in the gymnasium for some physical activity. But they’re denied time outdoors, because hey, no one wants kids out in the cold and the rain, right? Right?
Barbara Sheridan, Founder and Lead Forest School Teacher at Barrie Forest Kindergarten and Nature School in Canada, host at Campfire Chats Podcast and Podcast Host at Explorations Early Learning Studies, tells Scary Mommy that, “For me cancelling recess during bad weather is a judgment of the value of outdoor recess and the benefits of recess.”
After citing the numerous academic benefits of recess, she also says that recess “increases physical fitness in a way that is different than a structured gym class. It also provides time for free play and talking with friends, which in the increasingly structured world our kids have is beginning to disappear outside of school.”
She adds, “When we start to realize the time spent at recess is not only just as important with its own set of skills kids are learning but also enhances academics, we may start to rethink cancelling recess because it is inconvenient.”
So how do we implement recess in bad weather? Well, we can look to the Norwegians. As Tassy Thompson, a Scottish transplant to Norway and an outdoor play designer and creative education specialist, tells Scary Mommy, you dress for the weather.
“All kids, for the wet and cold weather, wear waterproof (and for winter, insulated) all in one suits and waterproof gloves with wool liners,” Thompson says. “The children just live in them! Rubber boots, wool sock layers and woolly hats complete the job.”
Aimee Stilling — who is director/producer of the film NaturePlay, board member of the American Forest Kindergarten Association in the USA and of the first international forest kindergarten in Denmark, and leader of Nordic Outdoor Model Education study tours — tells Scary Mommy, “When your child is in a Swedish or Danish school you are expected to provide an extra set of all weather ‘school clothes’ that stays at the school. In Scandinavia, if a parent does not send in weather appropriate clothing for recess it could be a cause of concern among the staff. They might gently inquire if the parent forgot or needs help in providing rain gear/winter gear.”
Financial reasons for lack of appropriate gear is a real concern, but if outdoor recess is a priority we can collectively work to provide change of clothes and gear for all students.
Stilling also notes that schools all have mudroom space and provide extra time for clothing changes in addition to their long recess times. In fact, she says, “The default assumption is that the children will be outside in rain and snow for break times and for lessons because it is good for them and not providing them with access to nature, fresh air, room to move their bodies is unhealthy. In fact, if a school does not provide this outdoor time everyday, no matter the weather, the community at large may begin to take action because the school is being neglectful of what children need for their physical and mental health.”
So kids go outside, even in the cold and wet, properly dressed for the weather — which is seen as a requirement, much like having a decent coat in the Northeast or the Western parts of the United States. Thompson says that when it’s cold, kids move, dress better, have spare clothes to change into and hot food and drink available, and may shorten time outside when the temperature hits -10 C (14 degrees F).
We know kids need recess. And we know, now, how it can be done. We simply need to take the leap to make it a priority: kids need warm clothing for the rain and cold(er) weather. They may need a spare change of clothes and space to change. But mostly, we need a change in attitudes. We have to believe that children not only deserve, but need, recess no matter the weather. They need the time to play outside, to enjoy the outdoors, to get dirty, to have time with their friends that is not circumscribed by adults. As Stilling says, “There is the magnetic and powerful draw of just being allowed to run freely and play with each other and being given the time to do that.”
We have to believe, like the Scandinavians, that fresh air is good for kids, no matter the weather. Even if it’s wet. Even if it’s cold. Kids without recess are fidgety. They can’t concentrate. They lose focus. Their test scores fall.
And God forbid we let those good old American test scores fall.