Texas schools test brain benefits of recess

Multiple studies affirm the importance of play in children's physical and mental health
By: | February 23, 2016

Students have more time for swings, monkey bars and outdoor games at four Texas elementary schools that have adopted a Finnish model structured around four short recess periods each day.

Debbie Rhea, associate dean of research and health sciences at Texas Christian University, created the college’s Let’s Inspire Innovation ‘N Kids (LiiNK) program in 2013 after studying Finland’s education system, which consistently scores near the top in international school rankings. In 2015-16, she began a three-year pilot in elementary schools in two Fort Worth-area districts, with plans to expand to at least two more schools in the fall.

In Finland, every hour of instruction is typically followed by 15 minutes of recess. “It’s a very different mindset—they believe active time is where we gain a lot of our learning” Rhea says. “Recess is good for all kids—it changes their ability to learn, be creative, problem-solve and get stronger physically and mentally.”

Multiple studies affirm the importance of play in children’s physical and mental health. Physical activity boosts language development and improves academic skills and classroom behaviors, Rhea says.

The LiiNK team provides a semester of training and scheduling guidance to the four pilot schools adopting the program. Students get four 15-minute unstructured recesses each day. On three days a week, they also spend 15 minutes on character curriculum, which includes lessons about empathy and problem-solving.

Early positive results

Eagle Mountain Elementary School of the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD in Fort Worth launched LiiNK in fall 2015 for kindergarten and first-grade students, and plans to add a grade each upcoming year. “Kids are not hardwired to sit all day long” says Eagle Mountain Principal Bryan McLain. “This helps give kids back their childhood.”

Initially, teachers feared the loss of instructional time, McLain says. “We told them they had to be more deliberate and intentional about planning” he says. “You have to really look at what you’re teaching, ask if it’s adding value or if it can be tweaked.”

Did you hear?

A school would need to devote just 7.5% of instructional time to physical fitness to help students spend the recommended 30 minutes of the school day engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity. Source: Pediatrics

Though it took some time to get used to the new schedule, teachers are reporting positive behavioral changes from students, McLain says. “We’re seeing kids more focused, and solving their own problems independently” he says. And office referrals for bad behavior decreased. “It’s hard to know how much is directly correlated to extra recess, but we’re finding they go out, have fun, and come back in and get down to work right away.”

LiiNK researchers observe students from each of the four schools and four control schools several times per month to collect data on academic performance and levels of student focus. They plan to publish initial results this summer, Rhea says. She is receiving requests from schools nationwide. However, schools that make the change require training and teacher support, she adds.

It’s not easy, because you have to let go of some of the rigid content areas when implementing this” Rhea says. “It’s a culture change, and it has to be a decision made at the district level.”