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Why Kids Need Recess

In Florida, a coalition of parents known as “the recess moms” has been fighting to pass legislation guaranteeing the state’s elementary-school students at least 20 minutes of daily free play. Similar legislation recently passed in New Jersey, only to be vetoed by the governor, who deemed it “stupid.”

When, you might ask, did recess become such a radical proposal? In a survey of school-district administrators, roughly a third said their districts had reduced outdoor play in the early 2000s. Likely culprits include concerns about bullying and the No Child Left Behind Act, whose time-consuming requirements resulted in cuts to play. Disadvantaged kids have been the most likely to be shortchanged: According to a 2003 study, just 56 percent of children living at or below the poverty line had recess, compared with 83 percent of those above the poverty line; a similar disparity was noted between black children and their white peers. 

The benefits of recess might seem obvious—time to run around helps kids stay fit. But a large body of research suggests that it also boosts cognition. Many studies have found that regular exercise improves mental function and academic performance. And an analysis of studies that focused specifically on recess found positive associations between physical activity and the ability to concentrate in class.