Summary: The combination of physical activity and social interactions children experience during recess helps reduce stress and improve focus back in the classroom.
Source: The Conversation
As parents and schools seek to support students’ social and emotional needs – and teach them what they need to learn – some education leaders are missing one particularly effective opportunity.
The U.S. Department of Education has offered guidance on how to help students navigate the stress and trauma of the pandemic and readjust to in-person schooling after long periods of closed schools. But as someone who studies recess in connection with child development, I couldn’t help but notice recess was missing from the federal guidance and from many local efforts to support students as the pandemic continues to unfold.
The physical activity and social connection that take place at recess help children’s brains work and develop properly by lowering their levels of stress, regulating their nervous system and allowing them to be more engaged once back in the classroom.
Stress and the brain
The brain function of a person in a calm state is largely governed by the prefrontal cortex, which handles what are often called “executive functions” and the ability to regulate behavior and emotions. This makes it possible for people to follow instructions, use context clues to solve problems, pay attention and incorporate new information into existing knowledge. People with higher levels of executive function tend to perform better in school and feel better about themselves.
The brain function of a person under high levels of distress shifts to less advanced areas of the brain that handle more reactive behaviors. This disrupts those executive functions and can make the person withdrawn, distractible or hyperactive. All of those can interfere with the person’s ability to learn.
This stress-related shift in brain function can also affect students’ motivation. Chronic, prolonged and unpredictable stress inhibits the release of dopamine, a brain chemical that helps people feel a sense of pleasure and reward during learning. In this state, learning challenges are likely to be perceived as threats, which will continue to activate more reactive brain regions and more deeply hurt the person’s ability to learn.
Research clearly shows the benefits of recess for children. Consistent, predictable recess time – even more than once a day – helps children reduce stress, form social connections at school and get their brains more ready to learn.
Funding: William Massey has received funding from S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation; U.S. Play Coalition, Playworks.