As a parent, it seems to make sense to tell your child that they can’t go out to play until their homework is done.

As a teacher, recess provides a “reward” that is often withheld from children who have been goofing off or who have not finished their assignment.

But recess is not a reward. Recess is as important to learning as any concept taught in the classroom. And for some children, including many unique learners, it is more important.

Recess is Necessary for Learning

The concept of a morning and afternoon recess for elementary school-age children seems like a nice break for the students and for the teachers. But, it’s a lot more than just a break. The physical and cognitive skills necessary to navigate an outdoor recess have a tremendous impact on the effort students provide when completing written worksheets back in the classroom.

Did you know that the same skills of perception essential to the game of tag are also a crucial part of arithmetic? Were you aware that playing on the swings and the other playground equipment contribute to the students’ sense of calmness and well-being back in the classroom? What about the arguments over whose turn it is at tetherball? Can this annoyance actually have value for academic success? You bet!

What’s tag got to do with arithmetic? Plenty! A child’s ability to successfully navigate while running full tilt on the playground and being pursued by a participant designated as “it” (as in, “you’re it!”), involves forming concepts about relationships and variables that are basic arithmetic.

Think about it, arithmetic incorporates manipulating numerals. The number system was developed to provide a symbolic language that allowed us to better appreciate the physical world in which we live. The great thinkers of days gone by assigned numerals to allow us to consider the physical characteristics of objects. The length, height, and width could now be studied. This symbolic language gave rise to leaps in our thinking. The parts of the world that had an understanding of math (such as the Mayans, Greece, Persia, and the Orient) advanced at a far greater rate than other societies.

Now, back to the playground:

Running over lumpy obstacles on the grassy field, around other students focused on collecting four-leaf clovers and running between the bushy hedges and the trees, all require an innate understanding of three-dimensional space. Length, height, and width of obstacles on the field as well as the distance between these obstacles are being calculated by the child’s brain as they sprint along.
In math class, a child must understand their body and the three-dimensional world before they can make the leap in their thinking of assigning a symbolic language to represent these very physical qualities.

Manipulating these symbolic representations of physical space (i.e. adding or subtracting numbers) is usually done with paper and pencil in a two-dimensional fashion. When we write the number 5, the number has a unique shape. The height and the width of the number 5 distinguish it from other numbers.

Arithmetic operations are also symbols. For example, we use a plus (+) sign to mean addition. There is a space placed between arithmetic operational signs and equations. The space has just as much meaning as the numeral. The written arithmetic equation is two dimensional. When you write the number 5 on a piece of paper, it has height and width, but there is no depth. The written number 5 on the paper is two dimensional, but it represents a portion of a three-dimensional physical quality. Now, that’s hard to understand!

Unless a child “gets”three-dimensional space, they can only succeed at math through rote memorization. By 3rd and 4th grade, memorization is insufficient in solving the more complicated problems. It is usually at this grade level that teachers begin to see the students who have always had an inherent understanding of what arithmetic and mathematics is all about and those students who have just memorized “math facts”.

Children need to get out of doors and experience their own bodies running, jumping, climbing over, sliding under and whizzing around stuff, so they can manipulate their own bodies through three-dimensional space. In the classroom, they may need to use physical objects, sometimes referred to as “manipulatives” to make the magic of arithmetic their own.

But most importantly, they need recess.

(If the weather is bad, and they can’t get out to play, try something like THIS.)

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Suzanne Cresswell Administrator
Suzanne Cresswell is an occupational and physical therapist who has worked with unique learners for over three decades. Suzanne works to educate and provide proven solutions and strategies to those that parent, instruct and work with unique learners. By creating an understanding of unique learners and their learning behavior, she helps parents, teachers and the students themselves find the ability in learning disability.
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