With the abundance of research about the benefits of physical activity and the direct correlation between physical activity and academic achievement, why is it that teachers and administrators continue to take away recess as a form of punishment? Is it because they are bad people who do not want what is best for kids? ABSOLUTELY NOT! Educators are some of the best people that I know.
I am reminded of a story about some researchers who wanted to see how monkeys would react to a negative response. The researchers took 5 monkeys and placed them in a cage with bananas at the top of a ladder. When a monkey would climb the ladder, the researchers would spray them with cold water. Before long, anytime that a monkey tried to climb up the ladder, the other monkeys would attack him...eventually, none of the monkeys climbed the ladder. Then the researchers took one of the monkeys out of the cage and replaced him with a new monkey, the new monkey invariably climbed up the ladder and when he did, the others attacked. The new monkey learned not to climb to the top, he learned this without water ever being sprayed. The researchers continued to do this until the cage had 5 monkeys in it, none of which had ever been sprayed, yet anytime a new monkey came into the cage and tried to climb the ladder, the others attacked it. If we were able to ask the monkeys, why did you attack that new monkey, they would probably respond with something to the effect of, "That is how it has always been done, you don't allow others to climb the ladder."
I think that recess as punishment is being used in much the same way, it is being done because educators have "always done it that way", regardless of the effectiveness and the research that demonstrates that play and physical activity increase cognitive skill and output, we stay with what is known and comfortable.
I have been a principal for over 10 years and during that time have devoted the majority of my career to spreading the word about the benefits of getting kids moving and active. We do not have to choose between incorporating physical activity, recess, nutrition education, and creating strong healthy children or having children who achieve at high levels academically. When did we stop teaching children and start only teaching content. As educators, we know what is right, we know why we got into this business. Test scores and academic achievement are part of it, but not all of it. In "Good to Great" Jim Collins says that blood and marrow are essential to human life, but not the purpose of it. In this context, I believe that testing and accountability are essential (and welcome) to education, but are certainly not the purpose of it. Educating a child goes beyond just the neck up, we as educators should be teaching children, not just content. When we teach children, we teach about nutrition, stranger danger, fire safety, health, and physical activity.
The key for educators is not to find additional time, the key is to find time without adding time. In my school, I allow the teachers to determine when to have recess, student need should drive that part of the schedule, not the other way around. My teachers are encouraged, when they see their students drifting or looking sluggish, to get them up, take them outside, invigorate them, increase blood flow to the brain, block the release of cortisol (a stress hormone that diverts blood flow from problem solving and library storage to the brain stem, fight or flight response) and give them the opportunity to be kids. Ask almost any teacher what they do with students after they finish a state test, my guess is that the majority will tell you that they take them outside so that they are not crazy the rest of the day and can focus. Why just do this on test day? We are facing a health and financial crisis in our country due to the sedentary lifestyles and poor nutrition of our children ! One out of three born after the year 2000 will be a Type II diabetic by the age of 18, Type II diabetes can decrease lifespan by between 17 and 27 years. For the first time in over 100 years this generation of children has a shorter life expectancy than their parents. We can change this, we can shift the focus in education from test preparation to life preparation, from losing out children before their time to them having a longer life expectancy than us, and from being punitive in our imposition of discipline to being restorative in our implementation of discipline.
Our company, True North Pedagogical Solutions, can help districts who want to make this change. In schools that I have been in where we have incorporated physical activity we have seen decreases in disciplinary incidents, increases in student and staff attendance, and significant academic growth. This has not just happened in my school or in one state, this has happened in multiple schools throughout our country. We hope to have the opportunity to help schools and school districts to implement this type of positive change. One statistic that cannot be disputed is this, children make up only part of our population, but they are 100% of our future! Together, we can make that future one that is bright and rewarding, True North can help!