Leaping into Learning


Sarah Shaffer


Why is it that we adults have to force ourselves to do what children do naturally? Has anyone tallied up how many of the New Year’s resolutions we made while watching fireworks over the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge have started to fade by Ground Hog Day? If you’re like many of my friends, a recurring theme is a determination to become more physically fit in 2020. It’s not only a desire to lose weight that moves us, but also fear of dementia. Study after study cites the benefit of moderate amounts of exercise on older brains, but what works for those who’ve reached their middle years is equally important at all stages of life. Scientists at the University of Münster in Germany recently documented a positive correlation between how far twenty-somethings could walk in two minutes and the neural growth and connectivity in their brains.


All of which brings me to the absolute insanity of depriving children of recess and an opportunity to enjoy the kinds of playful romping typical of the young in most mammalian species. Who can resist stopping to watch kittens or puppies at play? Their antics are so entertaining that it’s easy to forget that what we’re really witnessing is a mechanism shaped by evolution to efficiently build both bodies and brains. For most ofhuman history, we were physically active. It’s a sad fact that adults are now mostly sedentary, but it’s almost criminal when we impose this same lifestyle on our kids. The idea that we’ve removed recess in the name of giving children more time to work on skills that boost test scores is based on an absolute failure to understand the developmental link between play and healthy brains.


Rebecca A. London, author of Rethinking Recess: Creating Safe and Inclusive Playtime for All Children in School, is affiliated with the University of California, Santa Cruz. I credit her with helping California buck the anti-recess trend. However, as London points out, “There are no standards or curricula to guide its provision and governance, virtually no accountability for whether or how this time is offered or withheld for disciplinary purposes…” Therefore, it’s up to parents and caregivers to lobby our schools to make recess a valued part of our children’s academicexperience. It seems easier to get educators to acknowledge its fitness and social benefits than it is for them to grasp its role in building the neural structures our kids need in order to retain information fed to them in the classroom. It should be part of everychild’s day and never denied due to disruptive behavior. The children who need recess most are those whose brains are still in the process of building impulse control. If we want our kids to enthusiastically leap into learning, the best place to start is by guaranteeing each and every one of them the right to do some spontaneous leaping and running with their friends at recess.


Sarah Shaffer, award-winning educator, has been offering unique after-school enrichment and outdoor science and nature programs for children, parents, and teachers for over twenty-five years. More information about Sarah’s Science can be found at www.sarahscience.com