VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- Recess is a great way for kids to exercise during the school day. However, a recent survey shows recess is good for the mind, too.
But kids aren't going outside for recess as much as they used to, and their parents are often unaware it's vanishing from the school day.
Most people think instruction inside the classroom is the only way to improve a child's test scores. But recess also does the job.
In a recent Gallup survey, 80 percent of school principals said they've seen proof within their schools that recess improves learning.
"I have seen an increase in test scores, especially in math," said Dr. Marta Palacios, principal of a Washington, D.C., school.
Listen Better, More Focused
Sixty percent of the principals surveyed say that following a 30-minute recess students listen better and are more focused in class. The benefits of recess can be felt way beyond the classroom.
Psychologist and author David Elkind, who wrote The Power of Play, believes rote learning alone creates a nation of factory workers, while unstructured play creates innovators because it fosters fantasy, imagination, and creativity.
"These are like muscles and if you don't use them you lose them and so when you do don't allow children to engage in self-initiated, spontaneous play then they don't nourish these abilities," he said.
Despite the benefits of recess, it is disappearing from the school day. All across America school playgrounds are sitting idle because school teachers are cancelling recess and using that time to get in a little extra instruction. They feel pressured to make sure their kids meet testing requirements.
And according to Dr. Jane Lowe at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, there are other reasons kids are being denied recess.
"The most surprising finding of this survey is that schools actually still use recess as a punishment so that if children are misbehaving, recess is often the one thing they take away from them," she said.
Parents are often unaware that their kids are missing recess. And if their kids do get to have it, parents often don't know what type it is, whether its indoors playing board games, or outdoors running around blowing off steam.
Teachers sometimes keep their students inside for recess if the weather is cold, even though cold temperatures are usually fine for the children who are moving around, albeit uncomfortable for teachers who are standing still monitoring the kids.
"If you could give time for the kids to go out and release their energy for a mental change, then they will go back to the classroom with a fresh mind and start all over again," explained Dr. Romina Barros, professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine.
Unfortunately, recess is usually the only time kids have self-created play. Unlike decades ago, parents today generally feel it is unsafe to allow their children to roam their neighborhoods unsupervised. Furthermore, today's children often spend their afterschool hours overscheduled with structure.
According to Dr. Elkind, while such structure may provide exercise, as in the case of team sports, it doesn't provide the mental stimulation of self-created play.
"One of the things about kids who haven't enough time to play is they get bored very quickly because they've never had the opportunity, the time, to engage in activities, create their own activities and so on," he explained.
"And they always have things given to them, so when they're left with free time they don't know what to do and therefore they say 'I'm bored,'" he added.
Parents may want to learn how often and what type of recess their child is getting. They could also related to their school principals their desire to have kids experience outdoor recess for 30 minutes each day.
Doing so would not only benefit their children's physical health, but their mental health, as well.
*Originally broadcast on February 24, 2010.