Children have long regarded recess as a highlight of the school day. Last week, unstructured play breaks got an endorsement from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The AAP issued a new policy statement on Dec. 31 saying that recess should not be withheld from children as punishment; that it should complement — but not replace — physical education; and that it can benefit children’s cognitive, academic and social development in addition to contributing to their overall physical fitness.

“It’s important to protect recess,” said Catherine Ramstetter, who co-authored the policy statement with Robert Murray. “The fundamental goal of school is to provide academic and cognitive development, and recess is part of that.”

Ramstetter, a member of the committee on home and school health for the Ohio chapter of the AAP, said that she and Murray, a member of the AAP’s national committee on home and school health, initially looked into the ways recess can help prevent childhood obesity. As they researched, though, they found that recess benefits a child’s whole development, she said.

Many school systems have shaved minutes from recess, the AAP statement says, to spend more time working on math, reading and other academic pursuits. Schools also may have limited recess time because they don’t have an outdoor play space on school grounds or the resources to monitor playgrounds to ensure students are safe, Ramstetter said.

A fourth grader hangs upside down on playground equipment during recess. (Christopher Millette/AP)

Ramstetter and other experts on childhood development hope schools and parents will rethink this trend, and realize that play breaks can actually improve children’s academic performance. Even if the school doesn’t have playground equipment, Ramstetter said, there are other ways to provide children with unstructured play time, in a gymnasium or auditorium, or a local park.

“We all feel so much better after we have moved purposefully and vigorously,” said Carol Kranowitz of Bethesda, who co-authored “Growing an In-Sync Child” with Joye Newman. “Children will have a better appetite for lunch, be more alert throughout the school day and be infinitely more cheerful if they have frequent recesses.”

The AAP study noted that in other countries, children are given frequent rest breaks during the school day. In Japan, for example, Ramstetter said, students have a 10-minute break after 50 minutes of instruction, to allow them to regroup.

“Children, just like adults, and perhaps even more than adults, need a break . . . from structure, and from cognitive challenges, that is not just switching from one content area to another,” Ramstetter said. “Many adults during the work day have the opportunity to say, ‘I’ve been sitting here,and I need to get up and move,’ and can do that when they want to. But we expect our kids to go to school and sit still all day and follow someone else’s rules.”

Kranowitz said she hopes the policy statement brings increased recognition of the importance of physical play in childhood development.

“Everyone should be jumping in the air and clicking their heels together [over this],” Kranowitz said. “This is great news. Unstructured, creative play is what we want to sponsor in our children.”

She listed a number of ways children are learning while they are playing.

“When you are playing hopscotch, you are learning math skills,” Kranowitz said. “When you are standing on a step and jumping as far as you can and the next time you jump farther, you are learning about addition and physics and aerodynamics. When you are observing an ant hill, you are learning about zoology and social behavior. All of this matters when you go back in the classroom.”

Newman, the director of Kids Moving Company in Bethesda, agreed and said that children who have more time to move and play will often do better in the classroom.

“People who are comfortable in their bodies find almost everything easier,” Newman said. “The way a child becomes comfortable in his body is by moving. If you put a 3-year-old down in a classroom and have him practice reading and writing until he’s 5, as opposed to another child running around playing and rolling down hills, by second grade, the second one will be much farther along in reading and writing.”