We’ve all heard the adage “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” It turns out that it also makes him obese, interferes with his learning, increases his cardiovascular risk, and ruins his vision. Yet American children continue to face pressures to work more and play less.
American children have the 4th highest number of classroom hours in the world, yet some of the shortest recess. Moreover, with the increased focus on standardized testing and “accountability,” the school year has gotten longer and recreational time has decreased. The pressure on so-called failing schools to improve their test scores has led to socioeconomic disparities as well. In Seattle, for example, schools in higher income neighborhoods averaged 16 minutes per day of recess time than those in low income areas.
All this despite the mounting evidence of the benefits of unstructured play time, especially outdoors, for children of all ages. Here are a few examples:
- A study in the Journal of Pediatrics showing that adolescents with higher levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity had higher attention capacity; 60 minutes per day or more of activity correlated with the best attention capacity
- A 2005 systematic review of 850 studies showing benefits in a variety of health and behavioral outcomes associated with 60 or more minutes a day of at least moderate physical activity
- A recent study of teenage girls showing that even short periods (3 hours) of sustained sitting produce adverse effects on the cardiovascular system; these effects were averted with brief interludes of modest activity
- A study from Asia showing a strong correlation between fewer hours of outdoor activity and the incidence of myopia (nearsightedness) in children
In addition to these and other observational studies, a randomized trial of a school-based physical activity intervention program in low income children showed an increase in learning readiness and a decrease in bullying. The evidence is sufficiently strong that the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a policy statement calling recess “crucial” to children’s well-being and recommending at last 60 minutes per day of physical activity for school children.
So why do children in American schools continue to face declining opportunities to get up, get out, and get around? One factor may be that parents are kidding themselves about how inactive their kids are; a study in the International Journal of Pediatrics showed that parents frequently misperceive both their children’s weight status and their activity levels. But the other is the mistaken belief that if we only keep kids at their desks longer, and keep them away from frivolous activities like recess, it will make them smarter. We need to learn a lesson from Finland, which has some of the shortest school hours, longest recess, and highest test scores in the world. No Child Left Behind has become No Child Allowed Up Off His Behind, much to the detriment of our kids.