The stats are pretty staggering: as many as 11% of school-aged children in the country have been diagnosed with ADHD since 2011. 10,000 toddlers have also been diagnosed with and medicated for the same “disorder.” And while the situation is obviously complicated and multifactorial, is one big reason for this explosion of ADHD and other behavioral issues the fact that kids are simply expected to sit still for too long and not given enough opportunities to move? According to a recent article in The Washington Post, the kids themselves may not be the “problem:” their behavior is perhaps an indicator that the pendulum has swung way too far in our school systems and in our society towards sitting… and sitting … and sitting some more. In research gathered for a 2010 Robert Woods Johnson/Gallup poll on recess, they found that “up to 40 percent of U.S. school districts have reduced or eliminated recess in order to free up more time for core academics, and one in four elementary schools no longer provides recess to all grades.” With reduced recess or no recess, kids have little time to decompress, exercise their bodies in addition to their minds, and focus their energies on non-academic pursuits.
Adults in the workforce commonly find that getting up for a few minutes (such as for a water or tea break), taking a short walk to get some fresh air, or even chatting to a coworker can help them shake off fatigue or refocus on their work, yet young kids are routinely expected to sit up and listen up even as their little bodies beg for physical activity.
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Aside from the behavioral issues that are difficult for students, their families, and their teachers to manage, there are actual physical issues at risk here. As stated in The Washington Post article “many children are walking around with an underdeveloped vestibular (balance) system today–due to restricted movement. In order to develop a strong balance system, children need to move their body in all directions, for hours at a time.” Furthermore, consider iPosture syndrome, or the way that kids especially are developing a hunched-over head posture due to spending too much time slouching around looking at electronics devices.
Alternatives to this unpleasant scenario do exist, and looking to other countries may be a possibility for successful ideas. An American teacher found himself trying to apply the American style of schooling (longer learning sessions combined with fewer breaks) when he began teaching in Finland, where kids typically take a 15-minute break after every 45-minute period of instruction. When he changed to the Finnish system, he was astonished to find that these short, frequent breaks left the kids feeling refreshed, invigorated, and ready to continue with their learning. Japan is another country that typically incorporates 10-15 minute breaks every hour, and indeed, several studies have indicated that after 40-50 minutes, attention from students starts to wane. Anthony Pellegrini, researcher and author of Recess: Its Role in Education and Development found that short breaks such as these are integral in restoring the student’s ability to pay attention. These kid-directed breaks also allow students to practice life-skills such as cooperation, negotiation, and getting along with others. Unstructured playtime and the resulting independence and mastering of skills including self-control have even been linked with success later in life. Perhaps recess should finally be seen as a valuable part of school, not a superfluous activity that can easily be cut to allow for more standardized test prep time. Check out the American Academy of Pediatrics statement on The Role of Recess in school for suggestions and guidelines for healthy recess practices for more information.