Can Recess Make Your Kid Smarter?

Turns out the benefits of exercise aren't just physical

Remember when you were a kid and drove your parents batty on days that were too rainy to play outside? You had all this pent-up energy and took to jumping on your bed, whacking your sibling with pillows, and chasing after the family pet, so you could dress him in feather boas? Well, researchers are now finding out what moms everywhere probably already knew: kids with no physical outlet find other, often more disruptive, ways to expel their energy. As one recent study in the journal Pediatrics school reports: recess actually helps children behave better in the classroom.

But that’s only part of story. Recently, the CDC reviewed 50 studies on exercise and academics and found that having time to horse around at school doesn’t just improve classroom conduct–it also boosts academic performance. According to the CDC’s report, kids who take breaks from schoolwork to be physically active can concentrate better and may even perform better on tests.

Finally, we can pat ourselves on the back for doing something right… right? Not exactly. If you’re a parent, you probably already know that recess and phys ed classes have been getting slashed left and right in an effort to accommodate tighter budgets and squeeze in more time to prep for tests. Whoops. Maybe it’s time to rethink that strategy.

Though it’s unclear just how much time is devoted to recess every day at schools across the country, we do know that most school-aged children fall short of the CDC's current guidelines recommending an hour or more of moderate to vigorous activity a day.

That also just so happens to be the same amount of exercise that can keep kids with obesity genes from gaining weight, according to a study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. That’s not insignificant in a country where one-third of children are overweight and 17% are obese.

Whereas changing up school lunches a la Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution can be costly, adding playtime is a budgeting dream. Recess and classroom breaks cost almost nothing. Some schools, like Broadway Elementary School in Newark have even installed $14-an-hour recess coaches on their playgrounds to make sure kids aren’t sitting around on the blacktop, getting zero exercise.

If you want to help your kids do better in school, you can certainly advocate for more physical education. But in the meantime, think about how to slip an hour of activity into your family schedule: What about an after-dinner walk with the family around the neighborhood? Not only will it get the whole family moving, but it can give you quality time with your kids, free from cell phones, TV and other distractions. And who knows? It might just save you time helping them with homework later on, too.

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