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Power of Recess

  • Recess makes kids smarter

    Shwetha Ramani is a freelance communications professional who grew up in India and is now exploring the world of PR on the other side of the world, in the U.S. She lives outside of New York City with her husband.

    When I moved to the U.S. two years ago, one of the first things that struck me as different was not seeing throngs of kids running and playing outdoors. I grew up in India, where kids would all gather outdoors every evening and play well until 7 or 8 p.m. And during summer holidays and weekends, they would spend all day playing outdoors. But that wasn’t the only difference. A few months back, when I began working on Playworld’s Power of Recess campaign, I was very surprised to learn that schools in the U.S. are either cutting back or eliminating recess time altogether because of academic pressures.

    As someone who’s always had two recesses – a 15-minute short recess and a 40-minute long recess – I can attest that recess is a highlight of the typical school day. It provides kids with some much needed down time and allows them to reenergize themselves and focus better in class.

    I recall the boys in my class quickly finishing off lunch and then engaging in a game of cricket, creating a ball out of used silver foil paper and repurposing their pencil boxes as bats. The girls would either join the boys or form their own groups and walk around the school corridors. The lunch break encouraged us to be more physically active and when we returned to class once the break ended, the day didn’t seem all that long and dreary anymore. Also, some of the brightest kids in my class were the ones that played the most!

    The Indian education system is equally focused on academics. Yet, there are certain aspects (read: recess) that are given their due importance. Year after year, India produces a large number of students who excel in the STEM (science technology engineering mathematics) subjects, many of whom make their way to the U.S. to pursue their MBAs and doctorates. Does this have anything to do with sufficient recess time or the fact that Indians play more? While there is no concrete evidence to prove the correlation, it does provide us with some food for thought.

    The benefits of recess are clear. Why are so many schools cutting it back?

  • Subbing Play for Sweets in Year-End Festivities

    It’s that time of year. The end of school is near and the weeks are filled with special events and ceremonies that culminate all the hard work students have done since September. I’m not going to lie: I love the pomp and circumstance of the spring recitals, presentations and blacktop parties. My eyes tear up just thinking about how they help us mark time as our children end one grade and prepare for the next. What I could live without is yet another Sign-up Genius notice asking me to bring treats in for the students.

    Why does every event require food? I give my children breakfast at home, they are allowed a snack (before or after lunch, depending on when their class goes to the cafeteria) and then they eat lunch. Why do we need to bring more food for them to eat in between those three meals?

    Just last week, my husband and I attended our third grader’s recorder recital. It was absolutely delightful listening to the students with the sweet sounds of their recorders playing in unison. I couldn’t believe how many songs they learned. It seemed we only heard the same three or four at home. After the show, we were invited to the blacktop for a reception where the kids were offered Capri Sun juice pouches, cinnamon rolls, mini-muffins and bags of chips – all before 10 a.m.

    One mom I know approached the food table with a big Dunkin Donuts bag. The kids nearly attacked her, not even hearing her say, "It's not donuts!" as she walked over. When she pulled out beautiful homemade fruit kabobs, there was some initial disappointment, but many of the kids grabbed one, ate the fresh fruit, and tossed the empty stick in the trash before running off to play on the playground.

    The truth is I’m not sure we needed a reception at all. If the point was for the parents to spend time with their kids afterward, it didn’t happen. They mostly pounced on the food table and then ran off to chase each other or play on the playground. If the objective was to reward the kids for their hard work all year (and they deserved it!), then why not offer fruit and water? Or better yet, ask the parents to lead an activity – such as a craft or a scavenger hunt. Give them 15 extra minutes on the playground. Can’t we use fun as the reward, not just food?

    I failed to mention we had gone to a similar reception the prior week for Invention Convention – cookies and brownies before lunch! And I just found out last night that the teacher had to cancel a museum field trip to take care of a personal matter. The solution? Another classroom party!

    I don’t want to come across as an advocate for over-policing food in the schools. I am a big believer in moderation when it comes to sweets. But we shouldn’t be surprised that our kids aren’t making healthy food choices when we’re bombarding them with treat after treat as the school year comes to a close.

    With recess and outdoor play on the decline, perhaps we should consider the consequences of kids consuming junk food and not having enough physical activity at school. Have you found a way to make classroom parties less about treats and more about play?

  • Scattered showers with a 100 percent chance no one else will be at the playground

    Chantal Panozzo is an American writer who spent almost a decade in Switzerland. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and many other publications. The author of Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known, she is a mom to a four-year-old puddle jumping daughter. Together, often dressed from head to toe in rubbery wonderfulness, they continue to embrace the European lifestyle they once lived, even from their new home in the Chicago suburbs.

    My daughter and I both love Peppa Pig for the same reason: she joyfully jumps in muddy puddles. Being British, Peppa Pig goes outside when Americans don’t. My daughter—even though she’s also American—plays outside in less than optimal weather too. She can’t help it—she was born and spent her first three years in Switzerland, where playtime was almost always synonymous with outdoor time.

    Oh, to enjoy the weather. To really and truly sing in the rain instead of watching someone else do so in a movie. To see your breath in the cold air. To feel a snowflake on your tongue. But as I have learned after moving back to the U.S. after spending almost a decade in Europe, embracing the weather is un-American. We hide in our heated and air conditioned houses year-round, allowing our temperature-controlled surroundings to create the perfect climate for couch sitting while we wait for the four perfect days a year we consider the great outdoors great.

    As a mother in Switzerland, I didn’t think twice about dressing my infant daughter in an enormous snowsuit and placing her atop a picnic table at 7,000 feet above sea level while my husband and I drank in the cold Alpine air like its own après ski offering. We snow shoed through knee-deep mountain trails with our daughter on our back. We sat outside at Swiss cafes year round while our daughter sat bundled in a specially designed sleep sack attached to her mountain stroller. We hiked in the rain. We hiked when it was hot. We hiked when it was cold. And when our daughter learned to walk, she hiked in every kind of weather too.

    So imagine my surprise when we moved back to the States and I took my daughter’s collection of rubber rain pants, boots, and big coats to her new Montessori school only to find that they spent more time on her coat hook than on her. Weather has power over American children, not vice versa. The notes from the school told us just that when they reminded us of the appropriate temperatures for outdoor play.

    If you observe what most American kids wear, you wouldn’t know what season it is. Sweaters are worn in the summer since air conditioning allows us to forget its summer. Mary Janes are worn on snowy days since walking outdoors is not something a car culture encourages. And rainy days don’t inspire rain boots and rubber pants, but YouTube videos of British pigs jumping in puddles while American children, ever dry and climate controlled, watch them have all the fun.

    Recently, I visited a Finnish father of a 3-year-old, who had moved to New York City after living in Helsinki, Düsseldorf, and London.

    “I don’t get it,” he said. “My new son’s school tells me I overdress him. I’m just dressing him properly for the weather so he can play outside.”

    “Do you have those European rain pants too?” I asked.

    He nodded and I smiled. “Perfect. Let’s go to the park.”

    It was cold; there were scattered showers in the forecast but also a 100 percent chance that we didn’t care. As the kids joyfully went up and down the slides in a Central Park playground, my Finnish friend and I looked around, but there wasn’t much to see. We were in a city of 8.4 million, yet thanks to a few dark clouds, we had the playground to ourselves.

  • Homework can wait, childhood will not

    Sasha Brown-Worsham is a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Runner's World, Cosmopolitan, Parents and countless other magazines and newspapers. She is currently an editor at She Knows Media and mom to three kids, 9, 7, and 2. She and her family live outside New York City. She was inspired to write this after an elementary school in her community banned homework for younger kids.

    It’s 7 o’clock at night and my children are winding down for the evening. As we take the (long, torturous) walk toward the bedtime routine — bath, teeth brushing, kisses, reading — I hold my breath knowing that this day, like every day, I will put my kids to bed feeling incomplete. Yet again, despite my best efforts, my third and second graders will go to bed without having completed every bit of their homework. Our agreement is 45 minutes in their room with their books open. After that, they can stop. Sadly, that often leaves a lot undone. It’s a lot of misery. Every. Damn. Night. We are not alone.

    As elementary school becomes more and more academically challenging, play is becoming obsolete. In New Jersey, my home state, Governor Chris Christie recently vetoed a bill that would have made 20 minutes of recess mandatory in elementary schools. It’s insane. Anecdotally, friends report total homework meltdowns night after night. And in my house, it is no different. We have a rhythm to our evening and homework is part of it, but the feeling of never really hitting the mark, never getting it all finished, ruins what should be otherwise lovely nights.

    Last week, I’d finally had enough. It was the first week of spring weather after a cold winter and when my kids came home on Tuesday night, their backpacks laden with worksheets, books, and spelling homework, I declared a moratorium on homework. At least for a couple days.

    “Let’s go to the park,” I told them. We packed the toddler into her wagon and alternated between pulling her and letting her pull her way the five or so blocks to the park. My kids threw balls, they climbed to the top of the equipment, they went down the slides, and played tag. By the time we came home, dirty, sweaty, and tired, they were ready for a family dinner and reading before bedtime. It was the perfect night. If only every night could be like that.

    Living in the Northeast, we obviously can’t promise sunshine and 70 degrees every night of the week. But we can promise play. We can return to the days of tag after school ends and ghosts in the graveyard and tying our wagons to bikes and hoping they don’t flip. “Play is the highest form of research,” Albert Einstein once said. And I see it with my own eyes.

    It is through play that my children build their imaginations. That chair in the backyard? Cover it with a blanket and it’s a secret hideout for the kids when they go on spy missions. The swingset in the backyard has swings, a playhouse, and rings, but in kid-speak they could be rocket ships to the moon, a pirate ship, and a path to Olympic glory. They hula hoop and ride bikes, they toss balls into baskets and stomp rockets high into the trees, they turn cartwheels through the grass, and laugh as they tumble to the ground. Every single one of these activities is more important to their growth and education than a math worksheet could ever hope to be.

    So why are we insisting on loading our kids down with busy work?

    “It teaches responsibility,” one father said during a debate among some of my parent friends. But does it? As far as I can tell, the only thing homework teaches my kids is that mommy is crazy and yells a lot. And when I do yell, I am not doing it because I think they are wasting  an intellectual opportunity or not living up to their academic potential. I am doing so because I don’t want to get shamed by the teacher. I dread notes from the teacher in regards to the performance of my own children far more than I did notes about my own when I was in school. I cringe at the thought of looks from other parents whose children are on top of their homework. So I force my kids through the exercise every night even though I know logically, based on extensive research, that I am doing nothing but loading them down with facts they will forget in two years once they have also earned themselves a healthy hatred of school and the system that has made it so ridiculous.

    This is no way to live.

    My children are 9 and 7 and they spend 6.5 hours of their day in school. They get 20 minutes of outdoor time. If it’s not raining or cold. To send them home to do more indoor busy work seems criminal. They should be exploring their bodies, moving, playing, and reading. They should be eating slow family dinners and running around with friends, imagining their future.

    They have plenty of paperwork to look forward to. Taxes. Bills. Applications for mortgages. Applications for schools and camps. It’s all coming soon enough. For now, let’s let them play until they are dirty and tired. Let’s let them imagine their futures as pirates and fairies and doctors and engineers. Let’s let them build and read and have a couple hours of freedom. Childhood is brief and fleeting. It is a fraction of a total lifetime. And yet, it is the foundation on which an entire future is based.

    Adulthood comes soon enough. While they are still young, let’s let them laugh and imagine and play themselves to exhaustion.

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