doctor Marcus Baca and Dr. Pooja Tandon: Recess is a proven mental and physical health strategy

doctor Marcus Baca and Dr. pooja tandon

By Dr. Marcus Baca and Dr. pooja tandon

As pediatricians, we are alarmed by the number of children we see in our post-pandemic clinics who are struggling in school, have gained significant weight, or are dealing with serious mental health issues.

Our job as doctors is not just to treat illness, but also to promote the health and well-being of children. The families we see are working hard to improve their children’s health, but myriad social obstacles and effects of the pandemic continue to make this difficult. We believe that schools provide a unique environment for giving children equal opportunities to help them stay healthy and thrive – and a proven strategy is to increase the time children are given for recess.

Scientific research shows that students who receive more recess are mentally, physically, and emotionally healthier, with better classroom behavior, higher academic achievement, and better executive functioning. A recent study found that children with a 45-minute recess had measurably lower levels of the stress hormone than those who had a 30-minute recess—convincing evidence of the positive effects of recess on mental health. Similar to trying to learn when hungry, it is very challenging for students to learn while stressed and anxious.

However, despite this evidence, the recess continues to be cut and applied unevenly in our state. There is no Washington State policy to guarantee or standardize recess, so it is up to individual districts – and even individual schools – to determine how much recess students receive.

And, disconcertingly, it also remains common practice to limit or withhold recess time as punishment for misbehavior in the classroom. This is counterproductive for children who ironically would most effectively participate in a classroom when allowed appropriate breaks for unstructured play. Having access to recess is not a privilege, it is a critical part of a successful school day for every child.

To address these inequalities and increase the importance of the recess, State Senator T’wina Nobles (D-28th) and Representative Sam Low (R-39th) introduced bills in this session, Senate Bill 5257 and House Bill 1504, which would guarantee Elementary school students receive recess every day and set minimum standards for recess statewide. The bills would also help end the practice of calling recess, which disproportionately affects students of color and those with disabilities.

An equal recess in elementary schools would give students across our state — regardless of where they live or their family circumstances — daily opportunities to move their bodies, get outside, participate in child-directed play, and return to classrooms more prepared to learn.

As a state, we must take urgent action to identify and apply proven strategies to address the physical and mental health crises our children are facing.

These recess bills are a first step based on science and common sense. We applaud the Senate for passing its version and urge the House to quickly follow suit.

doctor Marcus Baca is a Spokane-based pediatrician working in community health. doctor Pooja Tandon is a pediatrician in Issaquah, Washington. Both are members of the Washington Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

doctor Marcus Baca and Dr. Pooja Tandon: Recess is a proven mental and physical health strategy

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