Feature Article - June 2007
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Back to School

A review of research conducted by the CDC showed that when physical education classes are increased in length, or when students are more active throughout the class, there are consistent gains in students' physical fitness. And apparently, legislators across the nation are beginning to get the message. A new bill signed into law by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist requires at least 30 minutes of physical education daily for students between kindergarten and the fifth grade. It also encourages middle schools and high schools to provide as much as 3 hours and 45 minutes of gym class weekly. Texas is working on similar legislation.

But physical education isn't the only way to get kids more active. Recess is also important, providing a needed break for younger kids and allowing a time for them to engage in more creative, free play. Despite evidence that shows that kids need recess time to relax, learn to interact and communicate, and get active, nearly 40 percent of American elementary schools have either eliminated recess altogether or are considering eliminating it. Still more have reduced their recess time so drastically that students can't really get started on a game before it's time to go back to their desks.

"Children who are physically active do better in the classroom," said National PTA President Anna Weselak in a press release announcing the organization's involvement in Rescuing Recess, a program that encourages schools to bring back recess time. "The research tells us that even if it means a reduction in class time, providing more time for physical activity can lead to increased test scores."

"Kids need the opportunity to play and recreate, and a lot of learning occurs during play," said Teresa Hendy, board member for the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association's (IPEMA) Voice of Play Initiative, and president and owner of Site Masters Inc., a design and safety consulting company based in Cincinnati, Ohio. "That's a known fact, and I wonder where our educators are coming from that they would even consider the elimination of play opportunities."

Jean Schappet, an advisory board member for IPEMA's Voice of Play Initiative whose 25-year career in the playground industry includes consulting, designing play environments, teaching and writing, said the elimination of recess might make more sense in light of the fact that so many injuries that occur during school happen on the playground. "If they don't see the developmental benefits, and they do see that the injuries they're accountable for in the school are a result of kids being out on the playground, nobody wants to take the adult responsibility that's at the core of the incidence of injury," she said. "There is no such thing as a playground that can keep children safe. Only adults can supervise children to ensure safety."

Beyond the need for adult supervision on the playground, Hendy also cited a need for more creative play opportunities. "Children need more than the traditional play equipment," she said. "We're not giving them extended time during recess for fantasy play and imaginative play. We're not doing a real good job of it in our schools or our parks and recreation areas."

Schappet agreed, adding, "A lot of children are still playing on the same equipment their parents did, but the children are so sophisticated because of the exposure they have to multimedia. Generation-old play equipment doesn't satisfy the needs they have to explore their environment. Children have a developmental need to be engaged in productive play episodes during the school day, and children are wholesale being excluded from opportunities for independent play, even during recreational times after school and on weekends."

Schappet added that the "great hope" for enriching children's play time may come from early childhood and childcare facilities.

"Traditional childcare providers—whether it's home-based or center-based—have often relied heavily on the children's exposure to play," she said. "My work currently is involved in influencing those care providers to raise the bar in children's opportunity for play on a daily basis. Assuming that what is static is the play environment, where we can leverage some influence is in helping them understand that the quality of play is how the children get to experience the play—both in appropriation of time as well as the elements children are given to play with."

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