April 16, 2015

Long Live Recess

Chances are you live here in Boulder because you love being outside and getting exercise – and these are values you instill in your children.

Chances are you send your kids to Friends’ partly because of our deeply held value that it is essential to educate the whole child – not just the minds of our students, but also their hearts and bodies.  We focus on the social/emotional and physical development of the children in addition to academics.

We like to get kids moving. We believe that exercise and fresh air is good for everyone. And this is not just a belief.  It is scientifically proven that getting outside and running around is essential for growing bodies and brains.

Recess is great for kids.

At Friends’, our kids are outside and moving their bodies a bunch.  In preschool, the children spend about half of their time here outside.  One of my great joys is watching our preschoolers running around, climbing, riding bikes, and digging in the sand.

At the elementary level, classes have recess twice a day (mid-morning and lunchtime) and some are outside three times a day.  Liz Richards has her 4th graders moving their bodies outside every single day before school starts.  They come back into class invigorated and ready for the day’s lessons and activities.  P.E. teacher Lindsey Hilliard runs her P.E. classes outside as often as she can in our up and down Colorado weather.

In a recent The Atlantic magazine article that one of our parents sent to me this week, an American teacher who is teaching in Helsinki, Finland writes about How Finland Keeps Kids Focused Through Free Play.  Finland makes the education newsbeat frequently in the U.S.
mainstream press for their outstanding results in schools. While Finland surely doesn’t face some of the issues facing the American education system, they are clearly onto something.


In this article, teacher Tim Walker describes how his students in Helsinki have 15 minutes of recess for every 45 minutes they are in class. He writes: “I didn’t see the point of these frequent pit stops. As a teacher in the United States, I’d spent several consecutive hours with my students in the classroom. The Finnish way seemed soft and I was convinced that kids learned better with longer stretches of instructional time.”

But he learned and goes on to state: “What I realized in Finland…is that once I started to see a break as a strategy to maximize learning, I stopped feeling guilty about shortening classroom instruction. Pellegrini’s findings confirm that frequent breaks boost attentiveness in class. With this in mind, we no longer need to fear that students won’t learn what they need to learn if we let them disconnect from their work for 10 or 15-minute periods, several times throughout the school day.”

The Pellegrini that he mentions is Robert Pellegrini, emeritus professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota and the author of Recess: Its Role in Education and Development.  He has been advocating this approach of more recess for years.

In his research, Pellegrini writes: Children “experience greater benefit from a drastic change in activity, such as is afforded by recess. This is consistent with the evidence that younger children may require a greater change in activity or stimulus materials before they experience a release from interference. This should make school learning particularly difficult for young elementary school children, and opportunities to engage in non-focused, nonintellectual activities should afford them the needed respite to re-energize their nervous systems so that they can continue to learn in school. Consistent with this reasoning, recess periods across the school day should minimize cognitive interference.”

This is something our Friends’ School teachers know – both instinctively and through their training.


In a different study, published this year by researchers from Stanford, including Dr. Milbrey McLaughlin, the David Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford University, the case is made that recess helps students to feel more engaged, safer and positive about the school day. “In fact, recess can yield numerous benefits to an elementary school's overall climate….because recess offers opportunities for both positive play and experience in learning how to resolve conflicts, it can have powerful implications for a child's education.”

In this day and age, when pressure to perform on standardized tests is pushing schools and school districts to limit recess and movement in schools, we are glad to have our students outside as much as we do. We love recess at Friends’. Now please excuse me while I head out to play….

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