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Want engaged students? Send them outside to play

Recess boosts students’ positive attitudes

Once the playground din dies down, recess is more than just a midday chance for students to run, jump rope and scream. Playtime also promotes good behavior in the classroom.

In fact, a 2009 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics reports that third-graders who engaged in recess for 15-plus minutes exhibited better classroom behavior than did those students who had no recess.

It can also have an immediate emotional impact on student engagement once they return inside, according to Allison G. Leggett, who teaches education and continuing education at University of Phoenix. “Generally, you have kids coming back inside smiling because they’ve had the chance to get their energy out,” Leggett says. “They come back exhilarated, and that positive attitude helps unleash their creativity and [ability to] focus.”

Generally, you have kids coming back inside smiling because they've had the chance to get their energy out.

Once educators understand the full benefits of recess, they can use recess activities as a reward to motivate students academically.

“Students, especially in their younger years, can be very competitive, and teachers can use that to their advantage,” says Leggett, who has been a Los Angeles–area teacher and administrator for more than 26 years. When children understand that their behavior in the classroom — such as winning the class spelling bee — translates into playground benefits, they tend to be more engaged in the classroom, she explains. A teacher can reward a kid with words such as, "Congratulations! You will be the first to hold the ball today!" And that provides affirmation, says Leggett, who notes that academic performance is boosted by a structured increase of time dedicated to recess.

However, all that fun and physical exertion comes with challenges, Leggett warns. Students, for example, often re-enter classrooms not just exhilarated from fun outdoor activities but also sweaty and thirsty, dirty and disheveled, or bruised and tired.

To refocus students’ attention, educators can proactively address re-adjustment to the classroom, such as reminding students to talk using their “indoor” voices and having students take turns at the water fountain as recess ends. “There are areas of recess that you have to work with and plan for [in order] to be in control afterward.”

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