Recess is serious business, and it’s getting neglected in the pandemic, researcher says

In our zeal to help children catch up academically after learning remotely during parts of the pandemic, and to minimize the spread of COVID-19 at schools, a leading researcher says we may be neglecting the most important subject of all — recess. 

“There’s a very strong narrative that kids have gotten behind educationally, and we need them to catch up,” said Lauren McNamara, research scientist at Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute, who studies the role of recess in child development and wellness.

But schools must also give kids the opportunity to “reconnect and to heal,” McNamara told The Sunday Magazine host Piya Chattopadhyay. “And a lot of kids do that through play, and outdoor play.”

She said recess fulfils a basic need children have to connect, and as a result, helps them learn better.

Lauren McNamara, a research scientist at Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute who studies the role of recess in child development and wellness, said research shows the social connections, fresh air and physical activity that come with recess are essential for learning. (Haskell Photography)

But connecting during a COVID-era recess is a lot more difficult. While practices vary between provinces, and even regions, based on public health guidance, children in many schools must stick to cohorts during recess — groups that may not include their friends, she said.

To limit contacts, McNamara said some principals are staggering recess times and even cutting one recess to accommodate cohorts, “so kids could potentially be getting less recess.”

“I’m also hearing no toys, no balls. I think there’s a fear [around] being able to keep it clean and sterilize,” said McNamara, who holds a PhD in educational psychology and is the founder of a Canada-wide research and advocacy initiative called The Recess Project.

For Toronto Grade 5 student Blake Hennelly, the cohorts have made recess less enjoyable.

“So not being in the same cohort as some of my close friends makes me a little sad, because I watch them playing together and it kind of makes me sad.” 

She said recess is “about the same importance” as classwork.

“You need to get, like, exercise outside and so you’re not in the classroom all worked up, not paying attention,” she said. “If you can get outside you then run around and then you can come in and be more focused.”

The research bears that out, according to McNamara.

Both in-class and recess programs that engaged kids outdoors have helped Knowlton Academy overcome some of the behavioral challenges stemming from pandemic restrictions that often prevent kids from spending time with their good friends. (Submitted by Knowlton Academy)

‘Healthy learners are better learners’

“There is so much research in the last 20, 25 years on belongingsocial connectionplay and fresh air, being outside, physical activity. All those things that happen during this space are the foundation for learning. They’re the foundation for well being,” she said.

“And you need to have good strong well being to be a really good learner. Healthy learners are better learners.”

Dr. Ayisha Kurji, a pediatrician in Saskatoon, agrees.

“I think recess is just as important a part of school and education as what you learn in the classroom, especially for the young kids, where a lot of your growth, a lot of your development is physical skills,” said Kurji, who is also an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Saskatchewan.

Dr. Ayisha Kurji, a Saskatoon pediatrician and assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan, says the physical and social elements of recess make it just as important to child development as work done in the classroom. (Submitted by Ayisha Kurji)

“It’s also a really important part of your social development. That’s where a lot of … the interactions with peers, and sometimes the struggles with peers, might happen. And learning to navigate all of that is actually really important and helps prepare us for challenges that we might face later.” 

Unfortunately, for some students, cohorting may mean not being able to get away from someone who is bullying them, said McNamara, who was badly bullied for being deaf after losing her hearing following a head injury sustained at a roller rink on her sixth birthday.

Although she and her colleagues have not been able to get into schools during the pandemic to research this phenomenon, she said there can be a “frightening” level of victimization that happens on school grounds if recess isn’t well managed.

Outdoor activities such as tobogganing at Knowlton Academy in Quebec’s Eastern Townships helped make recess fun, despite the cohort restrictions. (Submitted by Knowlton Academy)

‘Kids were sick of each other’

When students returned to class in September 2020 in Quebec schools such as Knowlton Academy, where Renalee Gore is principal, it wasn’t long before being stuck in class bubbles at recess presented challenges.

“Frankly, kids were sick of each other, and very in very short order,” said Gore, whose small public school in the village of Knowlton is in the province’s Eastern Townships, about 100 kilometres outside of Montreal. “And as the year went on, it just got progressively worse.” 

Even children who don’t normally have behavioural problems at school were being mean to one another, she said.

But they responded by ramping up the school’s existing nature programming and outdoor activities, which Gore said are made a lot easier by the school’s location next to both a hill and a forest.

A group including family and community members cleared the hill and built six toboggan runs, and a parent committee purchased 130 sleds. The town donated a class set of snowshoes.

Sledding made recess fun, as did time in the school’s gardens both during recess and class in the warmer months.

“Anything that was outdoors seemed to really help,” said Gore.

“Plus, we did yoga with the kids, we did dance with the kids, we did all sorts of things that would, you know, lessen their anxiety and brighten their spirits and make them more focused for learning when they were actually in the classroom.” 

She notes that Quebec schools have an advantage because they receive direct funding from the ministry of education — on top of board-allocated money for running the schools — to cover things like an outdoor education program called “nature nerding.”

It also pays for a staff person to oversee “sheltered recess” in supervised settings for kids struggling with anxiety, behavioural issues or bullying.

Paul Cairns, a father of two from Toronto who works in athletics as a tennis pro, said he’s concerned that public health restrictions on recess go to far, taking away from healthy active play and social connection.(Submitted by Paul Cairns)

Parents like Paul Cairns say they’re concerned COVID restrictions at their kids’ schools go too far, leaving children with not enough exercise or positive interaction with peers.

His children attend Grade 4 and Grade 7 at two different Toronto schools. At his older child’s school, for example, “they’re not being permitted to engage in games like soccer, football or tag,” said Cairns, who works in athletics as a tennis pro, and has discussed the issue with the principal.  

“So the reason they are giving is that they need to maintain their cohorts, and there’s limited space available for each cohort to occupy. And that it’s not safe for some children to engage in physical activity within that space while other children are not, because there’s some risk of them potentially getting hit by balls.”

But Cairns said that both public health and every major sports organization in Canada have determined that it’s safe for children to engage in outdoor physical activity that involves entering another child’s space for a short period of time. 

“So that’s what’s confusing and frustrating for my children, because they are participating in outside sports, but they’re not able to do that at the school.”

In an email to CBC Radio, the Toronto District School Board said it’s following advice from Toronto Public Health to limit mixing of cohorts, where possible, because of the ongoing pandemic and the fact that many elementary students are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.

“While we recognize the importance of social and physical activities, we are taking a cautious approach to reduce the possible spread of COVID-19 and the subsequent dismissal of students, classes and, in rare cases, schools” the statement said.

“In the meantime, we are in the process of reintroducing extra-curricular activities in a gradual and responsible way.”

McNamara said the pandemic caused a step backward for the work researchers like her were doing to advance the cause of well-managed, inclusive recess that’s as good for a kid who excels at basketball as it is for a child who prefers some quiet time at a craft table.

“However, the silver lining of the pandemic really emphasizes, I think, with so many people, especially parents of young kids, how important play is, how important friendships are, and all that matters to that, that spark that they have.”

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