I find two trends in education alarming: the growing number of schools that eliminate recess and physical education programs and the large number of children on Ritalin for attention problems. As a teacher, I can’t help but wonder if the attention problems some children experience is due to the structure and expectations of education and life in the 21st century. Children were not designed to just sit at desks all day long without much opportunity for movement and interaction.
A friend of mine, who also happens to be our school nurse, has a son with ADD. This child takes rRitalin during the school year; however, during summer vacation, he is drug free. It is only during the structured, restricted environment of school that this child needs drugs to focus. Given recent research on the subject, I can’t help but believe recess and play matters greatly for all children, especially those suspected of having attention problems.
Olga Jarrett, associate professor of Early Childhood Education at Georgia State University, explains her research in which children’s behavior was monitored:
On the days the students had recess before class, the children were more focused and less fidgety. Following a recess break, the children were more likely to be doing what they were supposed to be doing—whether it was reading or writing, looking at the teacher, or listening to another child recite…Brain research shows that breaking tasks up into pieces and providing a change of pace in between enables the brain to focus better.
Tyler, the fifth grader with ADD, shares his personal experience, “It’s easier for me to focus after recess because I’m not as antsy anymore. I’ve had my fun and now it’s time to do my work. I think recess helps us a lot.”
Research with rats supports these conclusions. Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Washington State University, found that rats that were allowed to play freely did not become rambunctious or violent. These rats played normally and grew up to be well-adjusted with no signs of hyperactivity. Rats with limited opportunities to play displayed a lack of social skills and hyperactivity.
Could the structured lives children live today both in and outside of school be responsible for their hyperactivity? Many kids are overscheduled and not given time to simply play. Once again, I am reminded that for normal development, children need to play. In fact, Panksepp’s research has led him to believe that the hyperactivity seen in some children is just their way of expressing their need for more play.