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Why some schools are sending kids out for recess four times a day

(Photo of kids playing at recess supplied by LiiNK Project and used with permission)

For years we’ve been hearing that many schools have cut back — or eliminated — recess for young children because academics are seen as more important than giving kids a chance to move during the school day. But now some schools are bucking the trend — big time, sending kids outside four separate times a day for unstructured play.

It’s part of a new program, called the LiiNK Project, which connects play and character development and is designed to bridge academics with the social, emotional and physical well-being of children. The program started in the 2015-2016 school year with four schools in Texas that used the program and four other schools that served as controls. Although it’s too early for definitive results, the short-term ones look promising. Kids in the program schools focused better than those in the control groups during the year, and reports of bullying were down. This year it is being used in 14 public schools in six school districts in Texas and Oklahoma.

Allowing young kids in school a chance to go outside for recess is not just a good idea — it’s a “crucial” one. That’s what the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on School Health declared in a 2013 statement on the subject:

Recess serves as a necessary break from the rigors of concentrated, academic challenges in the classroom. But equally important is the fact that safe and well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it. Recess is unique from, and a complement to, physical education — not a substitute for it. The American Academy of Pediatrics believes 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.

How schools ruined recess — and four things needed to fix it

But, of course, in the standardized-test-based era of school “accountability,” recess has been drastically reduced — and in some cases eliminated — for children for precisely those reasons. Even kids in kindergarten are being asked to focus for long periods of time on math and reading — even if they are not developmentally able. The result, according to Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, is that too many kids can’t sit still; they fidget, lose focus and act out. Some wind up being diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder even when they do not have it, she wrote here.

Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today

Taking these lessons to heart, some schools have adopted the program, in which young kids are sent out for recess four times a day for a total of one hour. They also work up to four times a week — for up to 15 minutes at a time — on activities focusing on positive character and ethics development. The curriculum comes from a 30-year-old K-12 curriculum called Positive Action, which implements a schoolwide approach from all content areas and helps students to better understand themselves and be honest with themselves and others.

The LiiNK Project was developed and is directed at Texas Christian University by Debbie Rhea, a professor and associate dean of research in the Harris College of Nursing and Health Sciences. LiiNK stands for “Let’s inspire innovation ’n kids.”

“I started the program because I was tired of seeing students burn out by third grade, teachers burn out in five years, and schools that focused primarily on testing from the time children entered in pre-K or K all the way through high school,” she said in an email. “I saw in 2011 that Finland was doing things differently, so I went over there and lived for six weeks to determine what it was that they were doing that we might be able to implement.

“The two pieces (recess and character development) that I’m doing in the 14 public schools now are two of the things I identified in Finland. The funny part is we used to do recess and character development in the ’60s and ’70s, but we went a different direction over the years and Finland learned from us and stayed the course.”

Eagle Mountain Elementary School in Fort Worth began doing it last year when Bryan McLain was principal for kindergartners and first-graders, and this year it is also in second grade. He said the idea made a lot of sense to him because “kids aren’t hard-wired to sit still all day.” Now, he said, “we believe in essence we are giving children back their childhood.”

The decline of play in preschoolers — and the rise in sensory issues

One result of allowing kids more time for recess, he said, has been increased instructional time “because the kids come back in and settle down and get to work because they know they will receive another recess before long.” He also said teachers referred kids to the office for disciplinary action less often as a result of the program and found that “kids are solving their own problems much more independently.”

“Our teachers and parents have completely embraced it, and I haven’t had a single parent complaint about it,” he said in an email. “… Teachers have to be very intentional and deliberate about their planning time and have done a remarkable job of working to meet the needs of the ‘whole child.'”

He said his school received a lot of inquiries from other schools about the project. It’s important to understand, he said, that LiiNK “is not just as simplistic as adding additional recesses without the character education program added and the additional training that teachers go through for several months prior to the implementation of the program.”

The positive results at Eagle Mountain sparked three other schools in the same school district to start the same program this year, including Saginaw Elementary, a Title 1 school where Principal Amber Beene said her administration is “constantly looking at research-based practices that can assist in closing the academic achievement gap for our students.”

She said the LiiNK Project was a perfect fit for her school because it provides not just academic benefits but behavioral and psychological ones as well.

“While I was certainly intrigued by the academic and behavioral benefits, it was the psychological benefits such as increasing emotional resiliency, increasing imagination and creativity, and promoting the development of self-confidence that I felt would be a game-changer for my students. While only in our first year of implementation (four recesses for kinder/first grade), I am confident that the implementation of the LiiNK Project will greatly benefit my students,” she said in an email.

Parents sought required recess for their kids at school. Florida Senate said no.