Our town is in the middle of a debate about whether or not recess should be mandatory. And if it is, would fifteen minutes be long enough? Which is, of course, just stupid. The rest of the country is figuring out how important play is. They’re realizing that we’ve left so little unstructured time in children’s lives that they don’t know how to play any more. But not here in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We are surrounded by elite research universities, we are home to the top Ed School in the country, and we can’t be bothered to read the latest research on exercise, recess, unstructured play, and even boredom.
I don’t know a single eight-year-old who can’t work his or her mother’s phone, but I know plenty of eight-year-olds who have never walked to a friend’s house to see if they can come outside and play.
I know more ten-year-old kids who have been overseas than who have run an errand for their parents to a nearby store.
I know plenty of overweight kids who rarely play outside but can name three superfoods that they learned about in school.
I know several “overactive” children who have lost their recess “privileges” when the thing they needed to lose was so much seat time.
Play is an essential aspect of learning. Down time is an essential part of being sane. Boredom is an essential part of creativity. Vigorous exercise is critical for many people, and helpful for everyone, in order to focus. You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to have figured this out. You just have to payed attention – to yourself, your children, your co-workers. (If you don’t have time to start your own observational study, I highly recommend Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John Ratey and Eric Hagerman, and Recess: Its Role In Education and Development, by Anthony Pelligrini.)
When my boys were in school, I couldn’t believe how little time they had to play outside. And the little time they did have was abandoned with the slightest bit of bad weather. When I picked them up at the end of the day, they were grumpy and lethargic. An hour later, after playing outside and refueling (don’t get me started on how little elementary school kids are allowed to eat during a day), they were like new people.
Many people ask me if we are going to put our children back in the public schools for middle school. We are not, and an absence of time to play is chief among the reasons. Too much time in school means that there isn’t enough time to muck around in the woods, wander the streets in a pack, organize a game of kickball and fight over the rules, hang upside down on a hammock and daydream, put on plays in the backyard, and play football in the rain.
C’mon, Cambridge. Leave recess alone. Better yet, make it an hour.