A doctor's plea: Restore recess in metro Atlanta schools

Sarah Gard Lazarus, a parent, pediatric emergency room doctor and native Atlantan, writes today about the critical need for recess in schools to improve children's health and well-being.

By Sarah Gard Lazarus

I’m a physician. In my practice, I fix things. If someone has a cut, I sew it. If someone has a fractured bone, I cast it. And when I see something broken in our school system, I must try to repair it.

Kindergartners get into recess. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Maureen Downey

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Credit: Maureen Downey

As a local pediatrician, I advocate for children on a daily basis. As a mother, I feel the need to advocate for my own children. Recess has been cut throughout metropolitan Atlanta to make time for test preparation. In many DeKalb and Fulton County schools, recess has been shortened to only 15 minutes per day. Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics cites 47 research articles that promote and recommend 60 minutes of active unstructured play daily.

The AAP explains that children who get regular recess are healthier, better able to focus, and develop the social and emotional skills necessary to be engaged learners. Research also shows that children learn better following a break for physical activity. During recess, children develop social and problem-solving skills that cannot be taught in the classroom, and these result in increased academic success. When children are given ample opportunities to move and play, their ability to focus improves greatly.

Children from Finland have some of the highest scores on international standardized tests, much higher that the children in the United States. There, they provide 15 minutes of recess for every hour children are in the classroom. Recently, at an elementary school in Texas, based on the Finnish curriculum, recess was increased to 60 minutes a day with four 15-minute breaks for children to go outside and play. Teachers reported being initially concerned that they would not have enough time to teach, but found that halfway through the year, they are far ahead of the academic schedule. Teachers have also noticed the children are more attentive, make better eye contact, and learn concepts more quickly.

Young children learn through movement. A child who has an unmet need to move cannot learn any better than a child who is hungry or sleep-deprived. Recess is not an unnecessary break from needed instructional time. Rather, recess provides children with the skills and physical foundation their brains need to learn effectively.

In many families throughout metro Atlanta, children do not have a safe place to play outside of school. Traffic, unsafe streets, or criminal activity may threaten their outdoor play-spaces. Some argue that socioeconomically disadvantaged children have the greatest need for more test preparation. However, these might be the children who are most harmed by a reduction in recess.

By depriving our children of recess, we are not improving test scores; we are creating unhealthier children and impeding learning. In Atlanta, 755 parents are standing by my petition for longer recess, and the movement is growing. Among these parents are impassioned physicians, educators, psychologists, psychiatrists, speech-language pathologists, and occupational therapists.

The question now is, will metro Atlanta schools do what’s right for our children?

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