MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And now a word about what we know is many students' favorite subject - recess. You know - monkey bars, tag, kickball. It turns out that recess isn't just good for kids' bodies. It's also good for their minds. Still, over the last couple of decades, American public schools have cut recess time to make room for more tests and test prep. KERA's Christopher Connelly takes us to North Texas, where some schools are taking playtime more seriously.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)
CHRISTOPHER CONNELLY, BYLINE: Recess at Eagle Mountain Elementary School - it's pretty much the same here as any school. Kids run and squeal on the playground. Others swing while a half-dozen of their peers are bunched up on the slide.
CONNELLY: Six-year-old Journey Orebaugh, in an off-white princess dress, prefers to spend her time playing family.
JOURNEY: You just get a bunch of people, and then you just act like who you want to be.
CONNELLY: She likes to be the mom most times. Orebaugh gets more opportunity to role-play because recess happens a lot here - four times a day, 15 minutes a pop for kindergartners and first graders. Orebaugh says it's because kids here are lucky.
CONNELLY: Actually, it's because Eagle Mountain Elementary joined a project designed by Texas Christian University kinesiologist Debbie Rhea. It's modeled roughly on the Finnish school system, which consistently scores at or near the top in international education rankings.
DEBBIE RHEA: I went over there to find out where they've come in the last 20, 25 years. Yes, their test scores are good, but they're also healthy in many regards.
CONNELLY: The biggest difference she noticed - Finnish kids get way more recess than American kids do.
RHEA: So I came back with the idea to bring recess back to the schools, but - not just one recess, but multiple recesses.
CONNELLY: Her program also focuses on character development - things like empathy and positive behavior. Rhea is working with a handful of local schools already. More will join next year in Texas and in California and Oklahoma.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Guys, guys.
CONNELLY: This year, Eagle Mountain Elementary started tripling recess time from 20 minutes to an hour every day. First grader Ben Parish says more recess gives him more time to do what he wants.
BEN: Mostly I'm running around, jumping off random stuff, just having fun.
CONNELLY: Teachers here say they've seen a huge transformation in their students. They're less distracted. They make more eye contact. They tattle less. First grade teacher Cathy Wells spends less time sharpening pencils.
CATHY WELLS: You know why I was sharpening them? Because they were grinding on them. They were breaking them. They were chewing on them. They're not doing that now. They're actually using their pencils for the way that they were designed - to write things.
CONNELLY: I caught up with Wells and her fellow first grade teacher Donna McBride on the playground. The two have six decades of teaching experience between them and say this year feels different. At the beginning of the year, they were nervous about fitting in all the extra recess and still covering the basics. But Wells says halfway through the school year, her kids are way ahead of schedule.
WELLS: When we teach them a new skill, it appears to me that they suck it in faster. That little sponge sucks it in faster.
DONNA MCBRIDE: And they hold onto it. They hold onto it.
CONNELLY: And there's research to back up what they're seeing in class. Ohio State University pediatrician Bob Murray says brain imaging has shown that kids learn better after a break for physical activity and unstructured play.
BOB MURRAY: If you want a child to be attentive and stay on task, and also if you want them to encode the information you're giving them in their memory, you've got to give them regular breaks.
CONNELLY: Murray wrote that up in a policy statement for the American Academy of Pediatrics. He and his colleagues found that kids with regular recess behave better, are physically healthier and exhibit stronger social and emotional development. But school districts nationwide have been taking recess out of the school day.
MURRAY: They want more academic time. They want more time to do the core subjects and work on those. And under the attitude that more is better, they have pretty much carved away anything that got in the way of those minutes for teaching.
CONNELLY: Debbie Rhea, the Texas Christian University kinesiologist, sees her program as a shift away from that thinking, toward giving kids more than just academics.
RHEA: We keep thinking as adults that we need to control the way they do things. I wish we'd get ourselves out of that. They know how to play. They know how to structure their own play. They need that time to grow responsibly. That builds their confidence. That builds their self-esteem. That builds resilience.
CONNELLY: When it comes down to it, Rhea says, our kids are better off if we just let them be kids. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Connelly.
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