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Reading, writing, arithmetic…and active play!

Topics: Participation and Learning | 1 comment

Photo by vasta - Flickr

Amid concerns about the increasing prevalence in our urbanised societies of childhood obesity and inactivity, one researcher is scrutinising how children spend recess and lunch periods on school days.

Dr Nicola Ridgers is a Melbourne-based academic at the Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research at Deakin University.

She believes that school recess and lunchtime provide daily opportunities for children to engage in physically active behaviours, and has taken a close look at how this time is actually spent in terms of physical activity.

With colleagues, she undertook a study that was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine earlier this year, examining levels of physical activity levels among children, using data from two longitudinal studies.

Two groups of children were invited to participate: one group of 5-6 year olds and an older group of 10-12 year olds. Measurements were taken at baseline, three years and again at five years providing an insight into changes over the schooling years.

As well as assessing the amount of physical activity undertaken by the study participants at both recess and lunchtime, these levels of activity were also assessed in terms of their contribution to the overall daily physical activity of the children.

Older kids less active at school

The findings were stark: physical activity levels in children decrease from an early age and continue declining over time. The largest decreases in physical activity coincided with the transition from primary to secondary school.

However, despite the decline in activity at school playtimes, Dr Ridgers found that these times were increasingly important contributors to overall physical activity levels. This is because as children became less active outside of school hours as they got older, the physical activity taking place at school playtimes increased as a percentage of the overall daily activity levels.

“Children can get up to 40 per cent of the daily recommended physical activity levels in recess and lunchtime combined,” says Dr Ridgers.

“Recess and lunchtime make up about 15 to 20 per cent of the school day and we need to recognise the value of that time. It is a ‘use it or lose’ it proposition,” she says.

The value of active play

Dr Ridgers says we need to see recess and lunch as valuable times for active play, which should be valued their contribution to physical activity, rather than viewed as expendable times which can be sacrificed for other areas of the curriculum.

“Recess and lunchtime are important even though they are being squeezed, often due to curricular pressures,” she says.
“We need to value recess and lunchtime more and ensure that they do stay,” she says.

Dr Ridgers also says that if we want children to be more active, we need to take into account the length of both recess and lunch.

“There is evidence to suggest that there is more physical activity when recess is longer,” she says.

Dr Ridgers believes it is not just the physical activity that makes recess and lunchtime valuable, but also the opportunities they afford to spend time outside and to cultivate skills that are not part of traditional schoolwork.

“Recess and lunchtime are very important for language and social skills development,” she says. “Reducing recess can result in significant behavioural issues.

“Recess and lunch are crucial times for children to be active and develop lifelong skills, like sharing and managing conflict…. All children should have the opportunity to go outside and play, and children are better behaved and more attentive in class following breaks.

“The main thing is that removal of recess shouldn’t be used as a punishment.”

‘Free play’ and other variables

Dr Ridgers sees enormous value in children spending time outdoors and is an advocate for ‘free play’ at recess and lunch in preference to organised sport. This is in contrast to some schools where the trend is to employ coaches to ‘teach’ children how to play.

“Free play gives an element of choice and allows children to organise themselves,” she says. “It is about providing the opportunity for activity.”

She also cites the growing popularity in the United Kingdom of ‘Forest Schools’, which draw upon the importance of providing children with direct access to natural settings.

“Studies in Norway have shown that in schools with natural woodland settings, children are more active. Natural environments provide opportunities for challenging and diverse play,” she says.

Other factors affecting physical activity levels in children include gender, with boys being typically more active than girls, although Dr Ridgers has found the decline in activity levels in both genders to follow a very similar pattern.

Also important are facilities, although the impact of these varies depending on the ages of the children. “The total number of facilities available at recess and lunchtime are important determinants for physical activity in adolescence,” she says. “For younger children, simple playground markings work to encourage physical activity.”

When quizzed about active after school care programs as an adjunct to the normal school day, Dr Ridgers says they can be important in helping increase children’s activity levels.

“However, the challenge is to encourage those who don’t participate in them to do so,” she warns.

Future research

In terms of future research, Dr Ridgers says more study is required to assess the sustainability of interventions that have been implemented and to decipher what other interventions are required as well as identifying additional factors that influence activity levels during lunchtime and recess.

“In terms of adolescents, work is required to try to identify the interventions to increase activity levels.

“We know playground markings work for younger children, though limited research has examined long-term changes and sustainability. Will it work for older children?” she asks.

“In the UK, our work found that playground markings increased physical activity over time, and this led to a drive for change in playground environments…. It will be interesting to conduct similar research in Australia,” she says.


One comment

  • Helen Batziris says:

    From and anecdotal parent perspective, I certainly agree with the comments made by Dr Ridgers. I have first-handedly seen the impact of the increase in my 9 year old’s physcial activities at school located in a rural setting. In our previous suburban school, his activity levels at school were lower (although he is very fit as does karate, swimming and soccer after school, so it wasn’t a big concern of mine). At the new rural-set school, they have access to a vast wetlands, school veggie patch and animal sheds (the goats need walking), as well as dedicated playing pitches etc.

    My eldest son is in a high school that is also surrounded by plenty of land and even though at high school, they still get the football out and have a great game at lunchtimes (with no input from the teaching staff, just self-organised by the kids). the school is spread out very well, requiring plenty of incidental exercise for the students to move around the school, which is also a big bonus.

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