Michelle Healy, USA TODAY
Recess is good for a kid's body and mind, and withholding these regular breaks in the school day may be counterproductive to healthy child development, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics' first policy statement on the issue.
Increasing pressures on schools to find more time for academics has resulted in "an erosion of recess time around the country," says statement co-author Robert Murray, a professor of pediatrics at Ohio State University. "But we have a couple of decades of research now that indicates that recess plays a huge role in a child's life, and not just because it's fun."
Safe and properly supervised recess offers children "cognitive, physical, emotional and social benefits," he says, including better attention span, improved classroom behavior, and an important opportunity for free, unstructured play, creativity and interaction with other kids.
In fact, the policy statement recommends that recess never be withheld as a punishment or for academic reasons because the break serves a "crucial role" in a child's development and social interaction.
About 73% of elementary schools provide regular recess for all grades, but "it's difficult to quantify at a national level exactly how many schools are taking it away as a policy," says Catherine Ramstetter, a health educator at The Christ College of Nursing and Health Sciences in Cincinnati and co-author of the statement.
Studies cited by the authors note that up to 40% of U.S. school districts have reduced or eliminated recess to allow more time for core academics, and one in four elementary schools no longer provides access to all grades.
In a 2010 Gallup Survey of 1,951 principals and other school officials, 77% reported eliminating recess as a punishment; one in five reported cutting recess time to meet testing requirements.
Chicago Public Schools made headlines this school year.
"Recess may look very different from one school to another," she adds, noting that facilities, location, and weather, for example, can dictate how individual schools provide recess.
With increased attention to the obesity crisis among children, recess has gained added focus as an opportunity for much-needed physical activity and fitness.
But the academy's statement says it should be viewed as "a complement to physical education -- not a substitute."
Recess "might allow time to practice something learned in physical education class, but it might also be a time for free play, creative play, imagination, or just sitting around and talking with friends," says Ramstetter.
It's important to view recess as "a child's personal time to decompress from rigorous academic activity and to prepare for the next rigorous activity," says Murray.
High school students get a similar opportunity as they change classes and adults have it when they "go for a coffee break and talk with their colleagues and then come back for the next task," he says. This personal time for kids "should not be taken away for either academic or disciplinary reasons. We need to protect recess time."