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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Improving the Forecast for Learning: Tips for a Great Winter Recess

By Peter DeWitt — February 10, 2012 3 min read

Today’s guest blog is written by Jill Vialet, CEO and Founder of Playworks

Schools all over the country are trying to figure out how to improve outcomes in the classroom. So, what does that have to do with the weather? When it is too cold or wet outside, many schools cancel outdoor recess. And when kids are cooped up in a classroom all day without the chance to let off some steam, that can affect their ability to learn.

Most education experts don’t spend a lot of time thinking about recess, but it is an invaluable tool that can help schools bring the best out of their students. Studies show that what happens on the playground clearly impacts what happens in the classroom. When students have a healthy recess, they behave better and are more focused in class.

Recess is especially important for schools that serve low-income students because it offers a way to address their social and emotional development. A recent study conducted in California and published in the Journal of School Health last summer revealed that the emotional well-being of low-income fifth graders had significantly declined over the last eight years. Incidentally, that same study showed that a high quality recess could help reverse that trend.

“School-based playtime not only improves the physical health of students, but leads to stronger emotional resiliency,” explains Dr. Kristine Madsen, the University of California, San Francisco researcher who led the study. “After physical activity, kids show greater concentration in class.”

Schools are often hamstrung in their ability to address whether their students get a good breakfast or have a stable home life or even have a safe place to play outside. But if schools want to succeed in teaching those same students, they must expand their focus beyond simply the academics. They have to find ways to be a positive influence on overall development, including the social, emotional and physical development, of their students. And a safe, healthy and fun recess is one of those easy things that every school should be able provide, rain or shine.

Which gets us back to the weather. What are schools to do when winter weather makes an outdoor recess too challenging or even unsafe? Here are five easy tips any school can use.

Adopt a healthy policy for recess in inclement weather. Each school has its own challenges. Rain may make playgrounds too slick or too muddy. Students may not come to school with adequate gear. Air quality may be an issue, especially for children with asthma. Cold or rainy days can still be great for outdoor play, but students may need to avoid the grass or slick spots on the playground. By being aware of your school’s unique challenges and creating a plan, your school can plan for a safe and healthy recess.

Dress for outdoor play. Layers, boots, a hat, mitten, a jacket, even waterproof pants can make winter play more fun. As the old Norwegian saying goes, there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing. Send a note home to parents with tips on how students should dress for outdoor recess. (Remind staff to dress for recess too.) Some schools may need a stash of extra jackets, mittens, hats and boots for students who forget. Hold a clothing drive asking parents to bring coats that their kids have outgrown.

Bring active play indoors. By using spaces creatively, students can get the break they need and some physical activity in an auditorium, empty hallway, or even the classroom. Arrange a schedule that allows classes to take turns using larger spaces for active play when recess is indoors.

Integrate movement into lessons and transition. Sitting down and being inside all day can be hard for anyone; and it’s especially true for kids. Allow students to stand while they work. Or when the class is getting fidgety, have everyone get up to do jumping jacks. Hold a two minute dance party. Play a quick game of Simon Says. Ask your coworkers for their ideas. Peter DeWitt shared ideas just the other month. Some of our favorites are Dance Freeze, Four Corners and Bridge Ball. Find the rules to these and more on our website.

Balance low-key, social/academic games with high energy, active games. Kids love pulling out puzzles and board games. This time allows kids a break from regular classwork and an opportunity to talk with friends. Ask parents to donate games to help make recess a success. Still, keep in mind that everyone can use even a short break for physical activity during those rainy or cold days. Balance some of the active games from above with breaks for kids to check out.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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