Exercise and Learning in Grade School

In defense of recess.

Posted Dec 03, 2011

The three Rs of elementary school are Reading, wRiting, and aRithmatic. We know these skills are a crucial part of academic development. There is also evidence for a fourth R in academic development—Recess. Recess is not just fun time; it is valuable break time and valuable physical activity time. And there are specific reasons why withholding this fourth R is a poor punishment for classroom misbehavior. In my own city, withholding recess is against district school policy. Yet, despite this prohibition, bench sitting time during recess is still assigned by some teachers for classroom or lunchroom misbehavior. What is the cost of this disciplinary tactic? 

First, withholding recess is especially anachronistic given the amount of sitting time at school (approximately 6 hours for the typical school day) and the current epidemic of obesity among youth. Exercise is a crucial part of obesity prevention and health promotion in children. Indeed, there are ongoing national agendas to increase activity among children, with recommendations from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and First Lady Obama's Let's Move campaign serving as prime examples. But there are also campaigns for enhancing physical activity in school for the goal of academic development.

This brings us to a second argument against withholding recess activity—physical activity promotes on-task time and academic success in classrooms. As discussed previously in this blog, mood enhancement as well as promotion of attention and memory is one of the core cognitive benefits of regular exercise in adults. These benefits also appear to extend to children, with findings of both brain growth and enhanced cognitive performance with physical activity in youth. Research indicates that even 15 minutes of post-lunch exercise can improve cognitive performance that very school day.  

Indeed, depriving children from activity at recess is particularly self-defeating when the broader academic benefits of exercise are considered. Some of this evidence comes from the national TAKE 10! Program that is dedicated to disseminating structured 10-minute activities to the elementary school classroom. This innovative program directly combined exercise and learning in strategies such as the Invisible Jump Rope—having children recall basic counting, addition, and subtraction facts in the classroom while jumping. As reviewed in a special 2011 supplement in the journal, Preventive Medicine, there is reliable evidence that the TAKE 10! program of exercise-learning periods in the classroom can promote better reading, math, spelling, and composite scores among grade school students, as well as reduced time off-task in the classroom. This is exactly the result teachers want, and it was achieved with more physical activity not less! 

Educators clearly need an immediate tactic for aggressive behaviors on the playground, including time out from that activity (bench time) if needed. However, for classroom or lunchroom misbehaviors, strategies other than recess activity reduction need to be emphasized. In short, physical activity during recess deserves protection. It is not only a fun activity for children, but, according to the available evidence, can promote academic goals as well.  

I can't close without emphasizing that responsibility for exercise promotion does not end at school.  Children have their academic homework after school, and likewise, physical activity needs to be part of this after school time as well. Also, the evidence is in that prolonged sitting has dramatically negative health costs to adults. We need to intervene early in the lives of our children to reduce prolonged sitting and promote exercise both in and out of school. And if we exercise enough ourselves, we may be smart enough to figure out how to pull our kids away from videogames long enough to do just that.

Copyright Michael Otto

Drs. Michael Otto and Jasper Smits are authors of Exercise for Mood and Anxiety Disorders: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well Being.

For information on bringing TAKE 10! strategies to your elementary school see their website.