MONDAY, Dec. 31, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Since the advent of the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, some schools have been cutting or eliminating recess to spend more time teaching academics.
Now the American Academy of Pediatrics is urging schools not to cut recess, which the organization says is a much-needed break and helps children develop a healthy lifestyle.
"Recognizing the need for schools -- on ever-more-stretched budgets and time constraints -- to foster academic achievement amid new calls to support physical activity/obesity prevention, our study suggests that recess promotes a healthy learning environment and can help schools in meeting both demands," said lead researcher Catherine Ramstetter, a member of the Academy's committee on home and school health.
"Importantly, recess should be used as a complement to physical education classes, not a substitute," added Ramstetter, a health educator at the Christ College of Nursing and Health Sciences in Cincinnati.
Recess is a fundamental component of development and social interaction children ought to receive in school, she said. It "offers a unique opportunity for children to experience a break from the academic demands of school as well as a forum for creative expression, social engagement and physical exertion," Ramstetter said.
Co-researcher Dr. Robert Murray, a professor in the department of human nutrition at Ohio State University, added that "recess is a crucial part of a child's development. That's mental as well as social development."
In order to learn well, children need a period of concentrated academic activity followed by a break that allows them to process information, Murray said. That's also true for adults, he added.
"Studies have shown that children do a better job of processing information if they don't move from one challenging task to the next, but rather, have a break in between," he said.
According to Murray, in most schools, recess lasts 15 to 20 minutes either before or after lunch. There are no data on the optimal length of recess, he said.
"All we can say is there needs to be enough time for the child to decompress," Murray said.
The report appears in the January issue of Pediatrics.
According to the group's statement, recess offers children mental, physical, emotional and social benefits.
The statement goes on to say that regular physical education is also important and recess is not a substitute for it. The authors see the free, unstructured playtime that recess offers as essential to children's overall health.
Moreover, they say withholding recess should not be a form of punishment. Recess, they added, is an important part of child development and provides social interaction that children may not get during class time.
"Schools ought to examine other discipline methods, and look for ways to provide safe and properly supervised recess for all children," Ramstetter said. "Whether it's spent indoors or outdoors, recess should provide free, unstructured play or activity."
One expert agreed that recess is an important part of a child's school experience and should be valued.
"We have been discussing the issue of unstructured play in schools for a long time," said Dr. Gloria Riefkohl, a pediatrician at Miami Children's Hospital.
Since No Child Left Behind was started, a lot of schools have cut or eliminated recess to add classroom time, she said.
"It is important that kids have recess," Riefkohl said. "Recess allows kids to get involved with other children that are not in their classroom and allows them to decompress."
Time spent interacting in unstructured play helps children develop important social skills, Riefkohl said. "We have to find time for children to be children."
For more on the importance of recess, visit the University of North Carolina.