How important is outdoor recess for children in elementary school?

How important is outdoor recess for children in elementary school? 150 150 Mediatrics

Girls on jungle gymQ: Hi, I am a parent of a first grader who attends public elementary school. Her school offers the option of having an outdoor recess period after lunch or an indoor free-time in the school’s media center
(essentially an extension of the library, featuring several computers, tablets, and eReaders). When I first heard about this option, I thought it was great and could potentially sharpen her tech skills. However, it seems that she chooses the media lab more often than outdoor recess (she says she likes the ‘games’), and I worry that she isn’t socializing with her peers enough and participating in enough physical activities (even though she has gym three times a week and is in good shape). Any advice you can offer will be appreciated—thanks!
-Ruminating over recess, in NH

 A: Dear Ruminating,

You have reason for concern about your daughter missing out on outdoor recess. In addition to being a great way to get exercise, recess has many cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits for children (see the recent American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement here).

Outdoor recess offers a break from the normal pressures of the school day and provides an opportunity to experience nature, not just physical activity. Nature has rhythms and rules of its own, that software can’t duplicate. Watching a robin feed its young or ants carrying food can be a wonderful way to learn about these rhythms and can also help calm and center oneself.

In addition, unlike solo media center play, outdoor recess is communal. That means it’s great for social development, which is a key task of elementary education. Having a safe, supervised time for free play allows kids to play games, create imaginary worlds, and develop a social structure where they learn to confront challenges and resolve conflicts. While computer games and videos can introduce content from reading to science, and can even help socialize kids with anxiety or who are on the autism spectrum, they are much simpler than the endless complexity of nature and face-to-face interaction with peers.

My recommendations:

  • Talk to your daughter about her recess choices. Acknowledge and discuss how gender may play a role in her choice of media. Explain to her the benefits of being outdoors, and share with her some of your favorite childhood experiences of playing outside or on a playground with friends.
  • Encourage her to balance her playtime, and suggest trying to go outside at least twice a week to start. Once she chooses to go outside, talk to her regularly about her experiences in a way that lets her reflect on the good and access your help addressing the more difficult. Compliment her on her successes and encourage her to increase the frequency of her outdoor play as the school year progresses.
  • Communicate your concern and your plan with your daughter’s teachers so that they are aware of the situation. They can help encourage your daughter to choose outdoor recess, help her habituate to the playground dynamic, and let you know how she is doing.

Although this is less likely the cause, make sure that her choice of media center over playground is not social avoidance because she feels ostracized or bullied (in which case, make sure to address that issue with both her and the school). If she is choosing the media center because she enjoys it more, your job is to help her recognize the unique pleasures of hanging with her friends and exploring the world.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician®