A new research brief reports on a disturbing trend in kindergartens around Massachusetts: a sharp reduction in child-directed activities and  teacher autonomy despite research showing that kids learn best with frequent breaks and the ability to learn through movement and play.

The author, R. Clarke Fowler, a professor of childhood education at Salem State University in Massachusetts, wrote that most kindergartens in the state have in recent years restricted activities such as free play, rest, recess, snack and lunch. It was true for kindergartens in high- and low-socioeconomic-status (SES) districts, but children in high-SES schools still have more time for these.

The findings — published by a nonprofit called Defending the Early Years, which commissions research about early-childhood education and advocates for child-centered policies — underscore a push around the country in recent years toward more “academic” kindergartens. This is the newest evidence that the pattern is continuing — even in a progressive state, despite a new emphasis in education on “social-emotional learning.”

Research shows that young children learn when they are allowed to be active rather than sitting at a desk filling out work sheets, as Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an early-childhood-development expert said:

We have decades of research in child development and neuroscience that tell us that young children learn actively — they have to move, use their senses, get their hands on things, interact with other kids and teachers, create, invent. But in this twisted time, young children starting public pre-K at the age of 4 are expected to learn through “rigorous instruction.”

Fowler wrote that the decline in activities such as recess and free play are harmful to children, who benefit “fully from instruction” when they are allowed to take “frequent breaks from teacher-directed tasks, which often require effortful attention.” He said:

Such breaks are necessary because neither children nor adults are capable of attending to externally assigned tasks for hours at a time. Further, requiring children to pay attention to teacher-assigned tasks for extended periods of time decreases children’s motivation to participate in instructional activities and degrades their capacity to retain and consolidate learning.

Fowler conducted his research in spring 2017, creating a survey that 189 teachers from 32 percent of the districts contacted responded to anonymously. Of those teachers, 112 were from low-socioeconomic-status (SES) districts and 77 were from high-SES.

He found that about half the teachers who responded said their districts had adopted scripted programs in math and writing — and 60 percent in phonics and spelling — which reduce a teacher’s autonomy in instruction. Seventy-four percent of teachers from high-SES districts and 64 percent from low-SES districts reported their schools had cut the amount of time scheduled for child-directed activities in recent years. Still, high-SES kindergartens scheduled 100 more minutes a week for play and recess combined than low-SES districts.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children have at least 20 minutes to eat lunch at school from the time they are seated, but many schools don’t schedule enough time for that.

Here’s the full research brief: