TOPICS > Education

Schools reprioritize playtime to boost concentration and teach social skills

February 4, 2014 at 6:27 PM EDT
Tight budgets and high-stakes tests can lead schools to cut time for the arts, physical education and even recess to make more room for academics. But taking away exercise may be counterproductive. The NewsHour’s April Brown reports on how nonprofit Playworks helps schools reincorporate play into their day.
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PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happena public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

GWEN IFILL: Now to our continuing look at education.

As schools days grow longer, so do the academic burdens being imposed on students. But, at the same time, school systems are cutting back on the arts, physical education and even recess. Some researchers say that is counterproductive, depriving students of exercise that can help them learn.

The NewsHour’s April Brown reports for our American Graduate project.

APRIL BROWN: The kids in Katie McLiver’s first grade class at Fox Hill Elementary School are no strangers to the dance floor. Short brain breaks like this are part of regular, purposeful physical activities that take place every day at this suburban Indianapolis school, both inside the classroom and out.

TOM O’NEILL, Playworks: As a grown man, playing games is a dream job.

APRIL BROWN: Tom O’Neill is known as Coach Tom around here, the man who has a slew of games for every grade and helps make sure all Fox Hill kids have a chance to move and play during the day.

O’Neill is the school’s coordinator for Playworks, a national nonprofit that helps fund positions for coaches like him in low-income schools.

TOM O’NEILL: By playing games, we learn how to socialize with each other. We learn about fair play and respecting each other. If we don’t play those games, how are we supposed go out and have a conversation with somebody if we can’t even play a game with them?

SEAN TAYLOR, principal, Fox Hill Elementary School: I can remember when we had two to three recesses a day. Our students don’t get that anymore.

APRIL BROWN: Principal Sean Taylor heard about Playworks from a parent, and found out the nonprofit would pay for half of Coach Tom’s salary. While there were many things his school needed, Principal Taylor decided picking up the other half would be a good investment. That’s because life at Fox Hill Elementary is not all fun and games.

There is a big focus academics at this school, which has many English-language learners and where 80 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. But, despite great expectations, Principal Taylor believes there must be balance.

SEAN TAYLOR: We understand the stakes are high, and we welcome those stakes. We want the best for our students here as well, but we know that in order to get the best, we have to educate the whole child, which means we have to always take into account their physical health, their mental health, as well as their ability to read, write and do math

JAYNE GREENBERG, Miami-Dade County Public Schools: In the past, where principals have said, well, it’s a frill, we can take it out of the schools, they are now rethinking that and putting physical education and physical activity, in particular the physical activity breaks and recess, back into the schools.

APRIL BROWN: As the district director for physical education and health literacy in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, Jayne Greenberg has seen the struggle to balance exercise with educational achievement.

Greenberg was a member of the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine Committee, which recently published a report revealing how shortsighted cutting recess and P.E. programs has been.

JAYNE GREENBERG: We know now we’re seeing in various states that, in looking at correlations, that there is a high correlation between physical fitness and academic performance on standardized tests.

Play is a child’s world. That’s their work world. I have always told adults, I can’t sit for seven hours a day. Why would we expect a 5-year-old to be able to?

APRIL BROWN: Fourth grader Lizzy Maze would agree it’s much easier to concentrate after recess or a couple of games.

LIZZY MAZE, Student: You have to get all the wiggles out. Just kind of have a little fun, so now you’re really tired, so you are ready to do some work.

KIM MORROW, teacher: It’s like a different class. You can tell they have had a good time. They have expended a lot of energy and they are ready to focus and settle down.

APRIL BROWN: And even though you wouldn’t know it today, third grade teacher Kim Morrow used to absolutely dread recess.

KIM MORROW: I just didn’t look forward to kids coming out and just getting in arguments. It was very stressful. But now that never happens. It’s like you go out, the kids are having fun. We can have fun with them and it’s just a positive time.

APRIL BROWN: There are days when it is simply too cold and too icy for the children to play safely outside. That means that Coach Tom has to get creative in the classroom.

One of the popular indoor activities is the guard dog game. The child sitting in the middle must use every sense but sight to figure out who’s trying to take the toy from under the chair.

TOM O’NEILL: We have to be quiet. We are inside. We are not outside running around. So it also teaches us patience, that, all right, it’s not our turn yet, so we’re going to be quiet, we’re going to enjoy what’s happening, and we can have fun still. Even though if we’re not participating, we can have fun.

APRIL BROWN: Students are learning plenty of other soft skills from Coach Tom’s games, too, like kindness, inclusiveness, and good sportsmanship. They are skills not all children can pick up at home, according to Playworks Indiana’s executive director Marc McAleavey:

MARC MCALEAVEY, Playworks Indiana: But we know that those soft skills have tremendous value in the development of kids. They use positive language. They — when they lose, they lose well. When they win, they win well. They take that beyond elementary school to high school and college.

APRIL BROWN: And perhaps unexpectedly, this kind of play has introduced a popular conflict resolution tool called roshambo, as fifth grader Ahonsti Morrow explains.

AHONSTI MORROW, student: It’s basically like rock, paper, scissors. If someone wants to sit next to their teacher, you have to roshambo. And if the other persons gets — gets it, then that’s the person that gets to sit by the teacher.

APRIL BROWN: James Valdez, a fourth grade teacher at Fox Hill, says having students be able to quickly solve problems themselves allows more time for learning.

JAMES VALDEZ, teacher, Fox Hill Elementary School: The activities that they do in Playworks promotes that conflict resolution, that piece that is really important that allows them to either solve an argument quickly or allows them to even be OK with sitting next to somebody, so that they can focus on the assignment that — that they have.

APRIL BROWN: But the games and activities with Coach Tom provide something special for some students, a leadership opportunity. A group of kids in the older grades are chosen to be junior coaches. The purple shirts they wear indicate their job is to help the younger peers with new games.

Fifth grader Chyla Glover is one of Fox Hill’s junior coaches, and she says this is the first time younger students have ever looked up to her. She and other junior coaches learn new activities to share after school. And for Chyla, getting extra time with Coach Tom has been very meaningful.

CHYLA GLOVER, student: He’s kind of like my best friend because he truly understands me and he listens to me.

APRIL BROWN: Clearly, for many kids, Coach Tom has a special role at Fox Hill. He’s a caring adult they see every day who has absolutely no bearing on their grades.

According to Playworks’ Marc McAleavey, it certainly doesn’t hurt that Coach Tom’s primary job is to help the children have fun.

MARC MCALEAVEY: It makes school kind of delicious. And so when kids wake up and they know they are going to play that day, and they have had this positive experience or multiple positive experiences, daily positive experiences at school, they want to go there.

APRIL BROWN: Playworks operates in 300 schools around the country, and serves about 3,000 children in Indiana alone.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Learn more about the link between physical activity and academic performance on our Web site. There, we also posted some of Coach Tom’s favorite recess activities, plus a lesson plan for teachers on physical activity and the brain.

American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.