Before 10-year-old Tyler N. began taking medication for ADD, he and his mother had devised a creative way to help him focus on his homework. After school, he'd run laps around the yard before sitting down to complete his math homework. And if he really got antsy or unable to focus, it was back to the yard for a few more laps.
Tyler—a smart, articulate fifth-grader who enjoys every subject at school besides music—explains why these running breaks were so helpful: "Before I started taking medicine, it was hard to sit in a seat for a long time."
It seems Tyler and his mother may have been onto something. Ample research suggests that all children, especially those with ADD or ADHD, need school recesses and other unstructured play time to function at their best.
That presents a growing problem for kids, as it's estimated that 40 percent of elementary schools across the country have cut back on—or have eliminated—recess in the past decade.
The need for play isn't being met after school either, as time that used to be devoted to unstructured (often outdoor) play is now being replaced by an increasing number of structured activities (such as piano and gymnastics lessons) or passive indoor activities like watching TV, playing video games, or surfing the Internet.
Why recess and play matter
According to Olga Jarrett, associate professor of Early Childhood Education at Georgia State University, there's ample evidence that recess and other forms of unstructured play are critical for a child's social, emotional, physical, and psychological development.
Jarrett, whose main areas of research include recess, play, and science, has also found that recess helps children stay physically in-place and mentally on-task while in the classroom. Over several months, Jarrett and numerous assistants monitored the behaviors of two classes of kids, comparing their behaviors at the same time each day.
In one experiment, Jarrett and her assistants monitored the behaviors of one class of kids, comparing their behaviors at the same time each day over the course of several months. The only variable: Some days the students had had a recess break before the class started, while other days they had already been working for a few hours.
Jarrett and her team found that recess helped children keep their bodies still and minds on-task while in the classroom. "On the days the students had recess before class, the children were more focused and less fidgety," explains Jarrett. "Following a recess break, the children were more likely to be doing what they were supposed to be doing—whether it was reading or writing, looking at the teacher, or listening to another child recite."
The chemistry behind recess
Jarrett has several theories on why recess may be so beneficial for learning and focusing.
First, having breaks for recess essentially breaks the long school day up into shorter segments. "Brain research shows that breaking tasks up into pieces and providing a change of pace in between enables the brain to focus better," she says.
Jarrett also stresses that there's strong medical evidence that exercise has a positive impact on brain chemistry, making it easier to think clearly and focus afterwards. Adults with desk jobs requiring intense concentration may instinctively do this when they get up to take a walk around the block to "clear their minds." For kids, recess provides a similar opportunity.
And for kids with ADD or ADHD, having a recess break provides them with a critical opportunity to expend their excess energy, making it easier to focus afterwards.
That's certainly been the case for Tyler, the fifth grader with ADD. "It's easier for me to focus after recess because I'm not as antsy anymore," he says. "I've had my fun and now it's time to do my work. I think recess helps us a lot."
The calm after the storm
The idea that play might be exceptionally important for kids with ADD and ADHD is supported not just by observational studies in the classroom. It's also supported by some intriguing research.
To study the relationship between play and ADD, Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Washington State University, manipulated the brains of young rat pups to make them mimic the brains of children with ADD and ADHD. (Such children often have slightly smaller frontal lobes than children with longer attention spans, though they generally catch up before reaching adulthood.)
His findings: The rats with laboratory-induced ADD played more frequently than rats whose brains had not been altered.
Panksepp then divided the rats into two groups: Those who were allowed to play as much as they wanted and those who were allowed only limited play. The results were even more surprising. That rats that were allowed ample opportunities for play did not become more wild, rambunctious or violent. Instead, they simply played normally and grew up to be non-hyperactive and socially well-adjusted—at least by rat standards.
However, the hyperactive rats that had only limited opportunities for play grew into rather rambunctious rats that had difficulty reading social cues from other rats.
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