Dr. Marcus Baca and Dr. Pooja Tandon: Recess is a proven mental and physical health strategy
Sun., March 19, 2023
By Dr. Marcus Baca and Dr. Pooja Tandon
As pediatricians, we are alarmed at the number of children we see in our clinics post-pandemic who are struggling in school, have gained significant weight or are dealing with serious mental health challenges.
Our job as doctors is not just to treat diseases, it is also to promote children’s health and well-being. The families we see are working hard to improve the health of their children, but numerous societal obstacles and effects of the pandemic continue to make this very difficult. We believe schools provide a unique setting to equitably give children opportunities to help them stay healthy and thrive – and one proven strategy is to increase the time children receive for recess.
Scientific research shows that students who receive more recess are mentally, physically and emotionally healthier with better classroom behavior, higher academic performance and better executive functioning. A recent study even found that children with 45 minutes of daily recess had measurably lower stress hormone levels than those who had 30 minutes of recess – compelling evidence for the positive mental health effects of recess. Similar to trying to learn while hungry, it’s very challenging for students to learn while they are feeling stressed and anxious.
Yet, despite this evidence, recess continues to be cut and unevenly applied in our state. No policy exists in Washington state to guarantee or standardize recess, so it remains up to individual districts – and even individual schools – to determine how much recess students receive.
And, disconcertingly, it also remains common practice to limit or withhold recess time as punishment for poor classroom behavior. This is counterproductive for children who would ironically participate more effectively in a classroom when allowed appropriate breaks for unstructured play. Having access to recess is not a privilege, it is a critical part of a successful school day for every child.
To address these inequities and elevate the importance of recess, state Sen. T’wina Nobles (D-28th) and Rep. Sam Low (R-39th) have introduced bills this session, Senate Bill 5257 and House Bill 1504, that would ensure elementary school students receive recess every day and define statewide minimum recess standards. The bills would also help end the practice of withholding recess, which disproportionately affects students of color and those with disabilities.
Equitable recess in elementary schools would give students across our state – regardless of where they live or their family circumstance – daily opportunities to move their bodies, get outdoors, engage in child-directed play and return to their classrooms more ready to learn.
As a state, we must take urgent action to identify and apply proven strategies to address the physical and mental health crises our children are experiencing.
These recess bills are a science-based, common-sense first step. We applaud the Senate for passing its version and urge the House to follow suit swiftly.
Dr. Marcus Baca is a pediatrician based in Spokane, working in community health. Dr. Pooja Tandon is a pediatrician in Issaquah, Washington. Both are members of the Washington Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
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