Why Recess? The Importance of Physical Activity for Elementary School Students

Most parents probably know that regular physical activity is good for children, that it helps prevent obesity and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, but did you know that it can also increase test scores and build self-esteem?

According to the 2009 report "F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies are Failing in America," issued by Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the percentage of obese and overweight children is at or above 30 percent in 30 states. Also, less than one-third of all children ages 6 to 17 engage in 20 minutes of vigorous physical activity every day. Yet, with the increased focus in recent years on improving standardized test scores (and what many consider insufficient instructional time for young students), many elementary schools in the United States are cutting recess and reducing physical education programs to fit as much learning into the school day as possible.

Certainly, physical activity has many health benefits for children, but it has a number of important cognitive and other types of benefits as well. Here are just a few:

  • Structured play opportunities-such as games and sports played in physical education classes-help children gain confidence, take on leadership roles and learn self-discipline and problem-solving skills.
  • Regular physical activity helps many children improve their mental health and maintain positive overall attitudes.
  • Structured play and organized sports teach children valuable social skills and foster teamwork.
  • Sports-whether team or individual-teach children that setting goals and working hard toward those goals yields positive results.
  • Structured play and organized sports give children a sense of pride when they experience success.
  • Learning a sport or activity requires children to practice new skills and persevere.
  • According to a 2009 study at the Neurocognitive Kinesiology Laboratory at the University of Illinois, physical activity increases children's ability to pay attention and results in better performance on academic achievement exams.

Recess, too, has many benefits, including the following:

  • Unstructured play helps children manage stress and reduce anxiety.
  • Recess creates a setting in which children learn and practice social skills and must be creative with how they choose to spend their free time.
  • Children who take breaks between performing school tasks are more attentive and alert afterward.
  • Recess allows children to explore, which stimulates their imaginations and fosters critical thinking skills.
  • Breaks between rigorous studying or work improve brain function and memory.
  • According to a 2009 study at Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine, children who receive more recess behave better and are likely to learn more.

Outside school, parents, too, should teach children about the importance of staying active. Encourage your child to play outside on nice days and get involved in after-school activities that incorporate plenty of physical activity. Remember that being active helps your child's body and mind stay fit and healthy.

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