Improving Our Children's Health Starts Where They Learn and Play

This commentary by James Marks, M.D., M.P.H., originally appeared February 8, 2010 on The Huffington Post.

    • February 7, 2010

When it comes to improving the health of Americans, we normally talk about what happens in a doctor's office.

And when it comes to improving education, we usually focus on what happens in the classroom.

But what if we looked outside of the classroom and the doctor's office? In fact, what if we just looked outside?

It turns out that there's one place you can go to improve learning and health at the same time: the elementary school playground. A growing body of research suggests that playing games like kickball or four square at recess may be the secret to a successful school day and building a lifetime of health.

Kids today are getting fewer and fewer minutes on the playground for recess -- the average is now down to about 22 minutes each day. Facing pressure to meet academic and other requirements, many schools have cut back on recess and some have eliminated it entirely, thinking that this can help them with their academic mission.

However, this trend toward sacrificing recess may produce the exact opposite result and hurt academic performance. In fact, according to a new Gallup poll of elementary school principals, the vast majority surveyed linked having recess to academic achievement, and two-thirds reported that students listen better and are more focused in the classroom after they have had recess. Principals also overwhelmingly saw recess as key to their students' social development.

Gail Connelly, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, which partnered with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) on the survey, isn't surprised by these findings. She says that principals know that students' academic development is inextricably connected to their physical, social, and emotional well-being, and they support recess as a crucial element of learning that sustains the whole child.

The Gallup survey comes on the heels of a major study on recess that was published in the medical journal Pediatrics last year. That research looked at 11,000 third-graders and found that those who had more than 15 minutes of recess each day behaved better and were more focused in the classroom than those who had less.

Investing in a safe and healthy recess can also keep kids out of trouble. An Open Society Institute study in Baltimore saw suspension rates plummet at schools that adopted a breakthrough approach pioneered by Playworks, a national nonprofit whose mission is to turn recess around and make it the best time of the day.

Jane Lowe, who leads RWJF's efforts to improve the health of vulnerable populations, thinks that America is poised for reclaiming recess because both schools and health systems are stretched so thin. They simply cannot afford to ignore such a low-cost and practical way to improve learning and well-being.

So we have doctors saying recess is crucial to education and health, principals saying it really helps their kids learn and when recess is reclaimed by programs like Playworks, kids get along better with each other. When it comes to common sense solutions, it just doesn't get any better than this.

If America hopes to meet the economic and social challenges of the 21st century, then we must use every opportunity we can to help our children thrive, starting with the playground.

Who knew that ensuring our children's future, educated and healthy, could start with four square? Ready or not, here they come. With a safe and healthy recess, they are bound to go much further.


Dr. James Marks is currently the Senior Vice-President, Director of the Health Group at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and is former Assistant Surgeon General, Director of the Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.