(Reuters Health) - A group of American pediatricians is telling school districts that children need recess and free time during the school day, and it should not even be taken away as punishment.
"We consider it essentially the child's personal time and don't feel it should be taken away for academic or punitive reasons," said Dr. Robert Murray, who co-authored the new policy statement for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The statement, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, says recess is a "crucial and necessary component of a child's development."
Recess helps students develop communication skills, such as cooperation and sharing, and helps counteract the time they spend sitting in class, according to the statement.
"The cognitive literature indicates that children are exactly as we are as adults. Whenever they're performing a complicated or complex task, they need time to process the information," said Murray, a professor at Ohio State University in Columbus.
"Kids have to have that time scheduled. They're not given the opportunity to just get up and walk around for a few minutes," he added.
Previous research, according to the statement's authors, found children pay closer attention and perform better mentally after recess.
Last January, a review of 14 studies found kids who get more exercise from - among other things - recess and playing on sports teams tend to do better in school (see Reuters Health story of January 3, 2012 here:.)
But a 2011 survey of 1,800 elementary schools found about a third were not offering recess to their third grade classes (see Reuters Health story of December 5, 2011 here:.)
Murray told Reuters Health that schools in Japan offer children about 10 minutes of free time after every 50 minutes of class, which he said makes sense.
"I think you can feel it if you go to a lecture that after 40 to 50 minutes of a concentrated activity you need to take a break," he said.
Currently, the American Heart Association calls for at least 20 minutes of recess every day, but Murray said recess needs depend on the child.
"Most schools - on average - are working on the framework of 15 to 30 minute bursts of recess once or twice a day," he said.
There is, however, consensus on when in the day children's recess should take place.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture both recommend schools schedule recess before lunch.
Previous studies have found that children waste less food and behave better for the rest of the day when their recess is before their scheduled lunch, the pediatricians' statement notes.
The statement also says schools should not substitute physical education classes for recess.
"Those are completely different things and they offer completely different outcomes," said Murray. "(Physical education teachers are) trying to teach motor skills and the ability of those children to use those skills in a bunch of different scenarios. Recess is a child's free time."
The pediatricians also warn against a recess that is too structured, such as having games led by adults.
"I think it becomes structured to the point where you lose some of those developmental and social emotion benefits of free play," said Murray.
"This is a very important and overlooked time of day for the child and we should not lose sight of the fact that it has very important benefits," he added.
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