TOPICS > Education > American Graduate

Why recess and physical education are making a comeback

BY April Brown  February 4, 2014 at 4:04 PM EDT
Students at Fox Hill Elementary school in suburban Indianapolis, Indiana take dancing 'brain breaks' in class.  Photo by Mike Fritz

Students at Fox Hill Elementary school in suburban Indianapolis, Indiana take dancing ‘brain breaks’ in class. Photo by Mike Fritz

INDIANAPOLIS — It’s hard not to smile and move to the beat when you see Katie McLiver’s first grade classroom dancing to some of their favorite songs. The students at Fox Hill Elementary School in suburban Indianapolis do the “Sid Shuffle” with the sloth of the same name from the film “Ice Age.” And they are nearly bursting, just waiting to move all their limbs as they “countdown from 20″ before the lyrics instruct them to dance and “shake your groove thing.”

The “brain breaks,” as they are called here, along with organized games and physical activity at recess and in the class are part of the school’s strategy to educate students holistically.

“We have to always take into account their physical health, their mental health as well as their ability to read, write and to do math,” said Principal Sean Taylor. “You can’t exceed your expectations in one area without taking into account all those other aspects.”

Tom O’Neill helps make sure Fox Hill students move throughout the day. Coach Tom as he’s known, is the school’s full-time coordinator for Playworks, a non-profit which promotes the power of play. Playworks pays for half the salary for O’Neill and other coaches, while the low-income schools they serve in pick up the rest.

Principal Taylor determined the value of organized play in his school was worth the expense, and this year Coach Tom organizes games during recess and sometimes in classes that are designed to teach soft skills like kindness, sharing and even conflict resolution at the same time the kids are getting to move around.

For the students at Fox Hill, physical fitness is an integral part of their school day. Watch the full report Tuesday on the PBS NewsHour.

Making time for regular physical activity in school is precisely what a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine is advocating. Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School indicates students may benefit academically and become healthier in general.

“It does impact the brain,” said Jayne Greenberg, the District Director of Physical Education and Health Literacy for Florida’s Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and a member of the committee that produced the report. “It does impact speed of cognitive processing, attention, memory and hence enabling the student to become more physically active is correlated to better academic performance.”

Many schools around the country have shortened or cut recess and physical education classes in favor of more academic time and to accommodate additional testing. Those decisions may have been shortsighted, according to Greenberg.

“Principals are now learning about the relationship between brain activity and physical activity,” Greenberg said. “In the past where principals have said ‘well it’s a frill we can take 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.”

Surveys have shown that only about half of young people get at least 60 minutes of vigorous or moderate-intensity exercise daily, which is what the U.S. Department of Health’s Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans’ suggests. Greenberg and her colleagues on the Institute of Medicine committee have developed their own recommendations to support more exercise and physical activity in schools. The Institute has also created an infographic resource to show how students can integrate exercise into their day

At Fox Hill Elementary, teachers and students have commented on how recess, Coach Tom’s games in and out of the classroom have made it easier to focus on academics.

“You’ve got all the wiggles out,” said fourth grade student Lizzy Maze. “Probably because of that reason and because you’ve just kind of had a little fun, so now you’re really tired so you are ready to do some work.”

For Principal Taylor, it’s about balance. Making sure kids can be kids, while they learn and grow.

“We understand the stakes are high and we welcome those stakes,” Taylor said. “We want the best for our students but we know that in order to get the best we have educate the whole child.”

Need a “brain break”? Check out Coach Tom’s favorite classroom games.

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