PUBLICATIONS AND TOOLS
- The Caloric Calculator helps practitioners do the math to fight obesity
- CDC releases 2011 State Obesity Map
- New research brief examines the availability of beverages sold in public schools
- Infographic focuses on the importance of physical activity among children
- Obesity might lower teens' thinking skills, study suggests
- Study: Cartoon stickers may sway kids' food choices
- Study: Antibiotics too soon may set babies up for obesity
- Physical activity levels of children are not enough to counteract sedentary lifestyles
CHILDHOOD OBESITY NEWS
- Portland schools to stop selling soda
- Lunch workers study how to get kids to eat healthy
- The rebirth of recess
Aug. 13, 2012, The New York Times
By Sabrina Tavernise
Adolescents in states with strict laws regulating the sale of snacks and sugary drinks in public schools gained less weight over a three-year period than those living in states with no such laws, a new study has found.
The study, published Aug. 13 in Pediatrics, found a strong association between healthier weight and tough state laws regulating food in vending machines, snack bars, and other venues that were not part of the regular school meal programs. Such snacks and drinks are known as competitive foods, because they compete with school breakfasts and lunches.
The conclusions are likely to further stoke the debate over what will help reduce obesity rates, which have been rising drastically in the United States since the 1980s. So far, very little has proved effective and rates have remained stubbornly high. About a fifth of American children are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Public health experts have urged local and state governments to remove competitive foods from schools, and in recent years states have started to pass laws that restrict their sale, either banning them outright or setting limits on the amount of sugar, fat, or calories they contain.
The study tracked weight changes for 6,300 students in 40 states between 2004 and 2007, following them from fifth to eighth grade. They used the results to compare weight change over time in states with no laws regulating such food against those in states with strong laws and those with weak laws.
Researchers used a legal database to analyze state laws. Strong laws were defined as those that set out detailed nutrition standards. Laws were weak if they merely offered recommendations about foods for sale, for example, saying they should be healthy but not providing specific guidelines.
The study stopped short of saying the stronger laws were directly responsible for the better outcomes. It concluded only that such outcomes tended to happen in states with stronger laws, but that the outcomes were not necessarily the result of those laws. However, researchers added that they controlled for a number of factors that would have influenced outcomes.
Still, the correlation was substantial, researchers said, suggesting that the laws might be a factor. Students who lived in states with strong laws throughout the entire three-year period gained an average of 0.44 fewer body mass index units, or roughly 2.25 fewer pounds for a 5-foot-tall child, than adolescents in states with no policies.
The study also found that obese fifth graders who lived in states with stronger laws were more likely to reach a healthy weight by the eighth grade than those living in states with no laws. Students exposed to weaker laws, however, had weight gains that were not different from those of students in states with no laws at all.
The authors argued that the study offered evidence that local policies could be effective tools.
"Competitive-food laws can have an effect on obesity rates if the laws are specific, required and consistent," said Daniel Taber, a fellow at the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who was one of the authors of the study.
Still, many states have no laws at all regulating the sale of such foods, and the group that helped finance the study, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, argued that the results made the case for a strong national standard for snacks and beverages in schools. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been developing new standards for some time, but they have yet to emerge.
Some experts argue that a real reduction in the obesity rate will come only when many more local governments adopt tough policies to change the food environment. Still others say that school is such a small part of a child's day that healthier options will make little difference when coupled with a home environment with a lot of unhealthy choices.
PUBLICATIONS AND TOOLS
Researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, including Assistant Professor and NCCOR Envision member Y. Claire Wang, recently released the Caloric Calculator to help decision makers, school district administrators, and others assess the potential impact of health policy choices on childhood obesity. The tool makes it easy to compare the relative impacts of making changes to local, state, or federal policies in addressing childhood obesity. It provides a centralized platform that synthesizes the best existing evidence on approaches that hold the most promise in changing the face of the epidemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released the 2011 State Obesity Map detailing adult obesity prevalence for all U.S. states based on Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) data. The data shows that in 2011, rates of adult obesity remain high, with state estimates ranging from 20.7 percent in Colorado to 34.9 percent in Mississippi. No state had a prevalence of adult obesity less than 20 percent, and 12 states (Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia) had a prevalence of 30 percent or more. The South had the highest prevalence of adult obesity (29.5 percent), followed by the Midwest (29 percent), the Northeast (25.3 percent) and the West (24.3 percent).
This brief by Bridging the Gap, summarizes two recent articles published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, that examined the availability of competitive beverages sold in U.S. public elementary, middle, and high schools. Data are drawn from surveys of nationally representative samples for five school years, from 2006–07 to 2010–11. The findings identify areas of greatest progress and areas where additional efforts are needed.
As parents, students, and teachers go back to school this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently launched a new infographic, "Burn to Learn," that draws attention to the fact that students who get high grades are twice as likely to get regular physical activity compared to students who get low grades. The infographic also highlights the benefits of physical activity on the mind and body including improving behavior and focus and boosting positive attitudes.
Sept. 3, 2012, HealthDay
By Alan Mozes
As the childhood obesity epidemic continues in the United States, more kids are developing an array of heart risk factors linked to obesity known as the "metabolic syndrome."
Now, a study suggests that these obesity-linked changes may be affecting kids' minds as well as their bodies.
The new study finds that adolescents with these conditions – which include abdominal obesity, unhealthy cholesterol/trigylceride levels and high blood pressure – are more likely to perform more poorly on tests of mental ability compared to their healthy peers.
MRI scans also showed certain worrisome differences in brain structure among children with the metabolic syndrome, the researchers said.
According to study lead author Dr. Antonio Convit, until recently it's been thought that "the bad things that can happen among kids with metabolic syndrome are 20 years in the future. But, this work demonstrates that these health issues are having a deleterious impact on a kid's brain now. Today."
Convit is a professor of psychiatry and medicine at the NYU Langone School of Medicine. He and his team published the findings online Sept. 3 and in the October print issue of Pediatrics.
The finding stems from U.S. National Institutes of Health-funded research that involved roughly 110 teens. A little under half of them had been diagnosed with at least three or more of the five specific health conditions that characterize metabolic syndrome: abdominal obesity, low good (HDL) cholesterol, high triglycerides, high blood pressure, and/or pre-diabetic levels of insulin resistance.
Previous research has shown such an association among adults, but this latest report suggests the effect on intellect from metabolic syndrome may occur more rapidly and at a much younger age than thought.
"It's also important to note that this was really a real-world study with a very conservative approach," added Convit, who is also a member of the New York State Office of Mental Health's Nathan Kline Research Institute. "We didn't compare kids with metabolic syndrome against kids who were squeaky clean, but against healthier kids who still might have had one or two of the things that make up metabolic syndrome rather than the three or more minimum [needed] for a metabolic syndrome diagnosis," he explained.
"And with that, what we found was that those with metabolic syndrome performed about 10 percent less well, on average, on a series of cognitive [intellectual] tests that look at things like spelling and math. They were still performing within the normal range, but significantly less well on skills that are very relevant for predicting school performance," Convit said. "And who would want their kids to perform 10 percent less than their potential, even if they're performing within the normal range?"
Convit also pointed out that 54 percent of American teens are now either overweight or obese. And an estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of those weight-challenged adolescents struggle with metabolic syndrome.
"So the numbers," he stressed, "are huge."
In the study, the scientists focused on 49 teens diagnosed with metabolic syndrome and 62 who were not, making sure that both groups were similar in terms of age, school grade, gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic background.
All the children underwent a battery of 17 tests that probed, among other things, abilities in the realm of attention, mental flexibility, reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Those with metabolic syndrome performed more poorly on all of the tests than those without the condition. Seven of those tests reached what the team deemed to be "statistical significance."
Adding to what the authors described as "alarming results" on the tests, MRI scans revealed that the group with metabolic syndrome had experienced a relative 10 percent reduction in the volume of the hippocampus region of their brains. What's more, brain atrophy was also found to be more prevalent among these teens in the parts of the brain that make connections between different neurological regions.
"So, what this means is that even though the hippocampus reductions were not so severe as to be in the abnormal range, the brains of [these] kids are not working on all pistons," Convit said. "Which means there is probably a good reason that those who are obese often tend to drop out of school more often than those who are not. They probably are more frustrated because they can't learn as readily. That 10 percent drop probably does make a difference."
So what should be done? "We should be doing more than simply looking at blood pressure when children visit the doctor," Convit said. "We should be looking at a wide range of health measures, and looking out for how these kids' brains are working. And parents should be made aware that lifestyle changes at home, where it really needs to begin, may be critical to keeping their kids healthy and ensuring that they can perform to their potential."
Lona Sandon, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, agreed that "this study just further supports the need to find ways to prevent childhood obesity in the first place."
She noted that "a lot of this does start at home. Pediatricians need to work to encourage parents to help their children adopt good diets and nutritional patterns and activity patterns, so they can stay lean and physically fit. Because the problems kids experience from being overweight or obese aren't just about looks or self-esteem. And they're not just about heart disease issues that can develop 20 or 30 years from now. We're talking about cognitive ability impairment that can affect school performance pretty immediately. It's a here-and-now problem that needs to be tackled head on."
While the study found an association between poor test scores and metabolic syndrome in kids, it didn't prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
Study: Cartoon stickers may sway kids' food choices
Aug. 22, 2012, Reuters
For children who turn up their noses at fruits and vegetables, slapping a cartoon face on a healthy snack may make those choices more appealing, according to a U.S. study.
Researchers, whose findings appeared in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, discovered that when elementary school students were offered apples and cookies with lunch, children were more likely to opt for an apple when it was branded with a cartoon sticker - such as one of the "Sesame Street" character Elmo.
"If we're trying to promote healthier foods, we need to be as smart as the companies that are selling the less-healthy foods," said David Just, co-director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Program, who worked on the study.
Noting that cartoon characters and flashy advertising often don cookie and candy packaging, he added, "The message should be: fight fire with fire."
Just and his colleagues offered cookies and apples to 208 children aged 8 to 11 at suburban and rural schools every day at lunch for a week. Children were allowed to choose an apple, a cookie or both, along with their normal meal.
Some days, the snacks were offered without cartoon stickers or other branding. On other days, either the cookie or the apple was branded with a familiar cartoon character.
When the snacks weren't specially marked, 91 percent of children took a cookie and just under one-quarter took an apple.
But when an Elmo sticker was slapped on the apples, 37 percent of children took fruit, the researchers reported.
Stickers on cookies didn't affect children's choice of the sweet snack.
"There are so many foods that are of poor nutritional quality and they are being marketed to children," said Christina Roberto, who studies food choices at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston and did not take part in the study.
Kid-friendly characters used for this marketing "aren't popping up on the carrots and apples as much as they are on a wide range of foods that aren't good for kids," she added.
Using stickers on fruits and vegetables could be one cheap option to help improve students' diets, she said, as well as something parents can try at home.
"It's not a bad idea to create these positive associations, especially if you're struggling to get kids to eat healthy foods," she added.
Aug. 21, 2012, ABC News
By Dr. Shari Barnett
Giving your baby antibiotics too early may increase their chances of being overweight in childhood, new research suggests.
Specifically, infants exposed to antibiotics during the first six months of their lives are 22 percent more likely to be overweight between the ages of 10 months and 3 years — though their weight tends to return to average by the time they are 7 — according to a study published in the International Journal of Obesity on Aug. 21.
This effect on the child's body mass appears to be dependent upon the timing of the antibiotics. The exposure to antibiotics later in childhood — while the child is between six months and 3 years old — is not associated with increased body mass.
Researchers say the reason for the weight gain could be that antibiotics at this tender age may change the delicate balance of bacteria in infants' digestive tracts.
"Unnecessary antibiotic use can disrupt healthy bacteria that live in our intestine," said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, primary study author and associate professor in pediatrics at New York University. "If we have a disruption in the microbes in this gut, it can lead to over-absorption of calories and obesity."
The study sample included 11,532 children from the United Kingdom whose parents agreed to the study before the babies were born. Researchers checked the height, weight, and antibiotics use of these children at birth, and then after approximately 7 weeks, 10 months, 20 months, 38 months, and 7 years.
The researchers also took into account other factors, such as the weight of a baby's parents, whether the mother smoked while pregnant, the parents' socioeconomic status and what the baby ate. Even when they did this, though, the relationship between antibiotic use in these infants and their weight gain remained.
"This will affect our thinking about the obesity epidemic," Trasande said. "This study suggests the need to shift the paradigm from thinking simply about diet and exercise to other environmental exposures."
Physicians were quick to note that this study does not mean that antibiotics should not be used in these infants when they are clearly needed. However, doctors said that all too often, antibiotics are used inappropriately — and this practice can have real consequences for babies' health.
"I think that generally antibiotics are quick, frequently overused by practitioners to treat viral infection," said Dr. Richard J. Deckelbaum, professor of nutrition, pediatrics, and epidemiology at Columbia University Medical Center. "I think that practitioners have to be aware of these findings.
"It's fast to write a prescription rather that to wait through a viral infection. It's another cautionary paper about not overusing antibiotics in young children."
Aug. 16, 2012, Red Orbit
Children who spend more than three-quarters of their time engaging in sedentary behavior, such as watching TV and sitting at computers, have up to nine times poorer motor coordination than their more active peers, reveals a study published in the American Journal of Human Biology.
The study, involving Portuguese children, found that physical activity alone was not enough to overcome the negative effect of sedentary behavior on basic motor coordination skills such as walking, throwing, or catching, which are considered the building blocks of more complex movements.
"Childhood is a critical time for the development of motor coordination skills which are essential for health and well-being," said lead author Dr. Luis Lopes, from the University of Minho. "We know that sedentary lifestyles have a negative effect on these skills and are associated with decreased fitness, lower self-esteem, decreased academic achievement, and increased obesity."
Dr. Lopes' team studied 110 girls and 103 boys aged 9−10 from 13 urban elementary schools. The children's sedentary behavior and physical activity were objectively measured with accelerometers (a small device that children attach to their waist that quantifies movement counts and intensities) over five consecutive days. Motor coordination was evaluated with the KTK test (Körperkoordination Test für Kinder), which includes balance, jumping laterally, hopping on one leg over an obstacle, and shifting platforms.
The tests were supplemented with a questionnaire for parents to assess health variables, before the authors compiled the results into three models to calculate odds ratios for predicting motor coordination. These were adjusted for physical activity and accelerometer wear time, waist to height ratio, and home variables.
On average the children spent 75.6 percent of their time being sedentary, but the impact on motor coordination was found to be greater on boys than girls.
Girls who spent 77.3 percent or more of their time being sedentary were four to five times less likely to have normal motor coordination than more active girls. However, boys who were sedentary for more than 76 percent of their time were between five to nine times less likely to have good or normal motor coordination than their active peers.
"It is very clear from our study that a high level of sedentary behavior is an independent predictor of low motor coordination, regardless of physical activity levels and other key factors," said Lopes. "High sedentary behavior had a significant impact on the children's motor coordination, with boys being more adversely affected than girls."
Until now there has been little research into the links between sedentary behavior and motor coordination, but these findings reveal that physical activity did not counteract the negative effects that high levels of sedentary behavior had on motor coordination.
"The results demonstrate the importance of setting a maximum time for sedentary behavior, while encouraging children to increase their amount of physical activity," concluded Lopes. "We hope that our findings will make a valuable contribution to the debate on child health and encourage future investigations on this subject."
CHILDHOOD OBESITY NEWS
Portland schools to stop selling soda
Aug. 17, 2012, The Portland Press Herald
By Dennis Hoey
If you're in a Portland, Maine, school or at a varsity football game at Fitzpatrick Stadium and find yourself craving a Coke, you'd better go to the nearest convenience store.
When the new school year starts in three weeks, soda will no longer be sold in those places – even in schools' teacher lounges.
Portland schools will implement a new policy that applies to food and beverages sold and served by any school or school organization. Food served on field trips, sold by sports teams, and offered at events sponsored by parent-teacher organizations must comply with the policy.
And all food served at school celebrations, staff parties, and district events will have to meet federal nutrition standards.
"The policies recognize that diet influences students' ability to learn, and they aim to ensure that food offered at schools and school events supports student achievement," the school district said in a statement on its website Aug. 17.
Chanda Turner, Portland's school health coordinator, said the policy doesn't prevent a student or teacher from bringing a soda to school. They just won't be able to buy one from a machine.
She said school officials aren't trying to control individuals' behavior, only the food and beverages that are sold through the schools. "This has literally been a process that has taken five years to implement," she said.
The policy governing sales of healthy food and beverages, approved by the school board in April, will be implemented Sept. 6 with the start of classes in Portland, Turner said.
The new policies qualified the district to receive $90,000 from Portland Public Health under its federal obesity prevention grant.
The new rules don't apply to nonschool groups such as the community athletic leagues that use school gyms and fields after hours. Also exempt are nonschool groups that provide concessions at school events off campus, such as high school basketball games at the Portland Expo. The school system cannot stop a vendor from selling soda at the Expo.
The announcement on the website was meant to remind parents, teachers, and students that changes are coming.
Instead of buying a bag of potato chips at lunch, a student might buy baked potato chips. Ice cream products will be sold in smaller portions, and those delicious, white flour, cinnamon buns – reputed to be as large as a person's head – will be replaced at Portland High by smaller, whole grain cinnamon buns, Turner said.
Turner said the staff will no longer be allowed to use food as a reward. A teacher who wants to acknowledge a student's academic achievements will no longer be allowed to give that student a cookie, for example.
Jaimey Caron, a school board member, supports the policy changes. He said he has not received any negative feedback from staff members or students.
"What resonates with me is that we want to model healthy behaviors. We want our students to learn these behaviors and take them into adulthood with them," Caron said.
Lunch workers study how to get kids to eat healthy
Aug. 27, 2012, The Coloradoan
By Kristen Wyatt
There will be more whole grains on school lunch menus this year, along with a wider selection of fruits and vegetables and other healthy options. The challenge is getting children to eat them.
"We don't want healthy trash cans. We want kids who are eating this stuff," said Kern Halls, a former Disney World restaurant manager who now works in school nutrition at Orange County Public Schools in Florida.
At a School Nutrition Association conference in Denver this summer, food workers heard tips about how to get children to make healthy food choices in the cafeteria.
A Colorado State University professor studied the dining habits of kids in Loveland, with an eye toward measuring ways to get them to choose healthier foods. Leslie Cunningham-Sabo, who photographed "before" and "after" pictures of kids' lunch trays, found that kids eat more fruits and vegetables if they have lunch after recess, instead of before recess. She found that corn consumption went up when generic "corn" labels were replaced with colorful cards describing the vegetable as "mellow yellow corn."
"Don't put veggies in opaque containers or give them boring labels like 'corn,'" Cunningham-Sabo told the lunch workers, showing diagrams of how to lay out a service line to encourage trips to the salad bar.
Another trick — just like supermarkets place impulse buys like candy and chewing gum by the checkout, lunch lines should place easy-to-grab fruits and veggies by their own cash registers. Her study saw cafeterias double their sales of fresh fruit when they placed it colorful bowls in a convenient place.
"You really have to be in their face with what's available," Cunningham-Sabo said.
The problem is a serious one for the nation's lunch-line managers, who are implementing the biggest update to federal school-food guidelines in 15 years.
New U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines taking effect this fall set calorie and sodium limits for school meals. Schools must offer dark green, orange, or red vegetables and legumes at least once a week, and students are required to select at least one vegetable or fruit per meal. Flavored milk must be nonfat, and there's a ban on artificial, artery-clogging trans fats.
At the conference, Halls demonstrated some healthy recipes for curious cafeteria managers, joining White House chef Sam Kass to prepare a veggie wrap using a whole-wheat tortilla.
Halls' main mission, though, was not pushing new recipes but teaching cafeteria managers marketing strategies used to great success by private-sector restaurants and food producers.
The first step, cafeteria workers were told, is to stop thinking of lunchtime as a break from academics, but a crucial part of a child's school day.
"Your job is not to serve kids food. Your job is motivate kids to be adventurous and healthy eaters," said Barb Mechura, head of nutrition services at schools in Hopkins, Minn.
Her school district recruited parent volunteers to be elementary-school "food coaches," touring cafeterias and handing out samples of fruits and vegetables. The food coaches would also demonstrate eating them. Food coaching may seem silly, but kids who have had chicken only as nuggets or patties may not know how to eat bone-in chicken and need to see how a grown-up eats it before trying it themselves.
As the kids graduate to middle and high schools, and grown-ups in the cafeteria aren't as welcome, schools can tap student ambassadors to be food coaches, perhaps asking the baseball team or a popular student athlete dish out veggies. Or, high school seniors might give underclassmen samples of a new vegetable coming to the cafeteria.
School cafeterias also are using cutting-edge market research. They're filming what kids eat, test-marketing new products before they go on the line and doing menu surveys to find out exactly what students think about a dish's taste, appearance and temperature.
The marketing doesn't stop at the cafeteria doors. Lassen View Elementary School in Redding, Calif., got children to eat more fruits and vegetables when cafeteria manager Kathie Sardeson started a recess snack cart bringing the foods straight to the playground for kids to munch on.
Her school also bought an iPad 2 to raffle away to students who entered by choosing a healthy breakfast yogurt parfait and turning in tickets attached to the bottom. She tempted kids to try unusual flavors by giving out "Fear Factor Smoothies," including unexpected ingredients such as spinach. Sardeson said schools can be persuaded to invest more in nutrition promotions because the payoff is better students.
"We get a lot of feedback from teachers that behavior problems are way down because the kids are eating right," Sardeson said.
Educators are coming around to recognizing value in having better school food, Mechura told the cafeteria workers.
"Food is one of the most important influences on your everyday brain cells," Mechura said. Healthy eating habits, she argued, is as important as everything else schools are trying to teach.
"We have to change," Mechura said. "We have to build an environment that creates excitement about what we are doing rather than fear of new foods."
The rebirth of recess
Aug. 29, 2012, Slate
By Nicholas Day
Every schoolchild who's ever squirmed in his seat, anxious for recess to arrive, can sympathize with students in Chicago. This year, many public schools in that city are scheduled to have recess for the first time in three decades. Chicago's long recess drought isn't unusual. Even before No Child Left Behind, recess was an endangered species. Since NCLB, every minute of the school day has been scrutinized for its instructional value—and recess, a break from instruction, often didn't survive the scrutiny. It was, by definition, a waste of time.
But while administrators were trying to get rid of recess, academics were studying it—that is, they were studying the time when children weren't studying. The new science of recess says that recess isn't a waste of time at all. "Having recess is much, much, much better than not having recess," says Anthony Pellegrini, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota who's written extensively on the subject. "That's unequivocal, I feel. That's a no-brainer." That's good news for children in Chicago squirming in their seats. But what does recess look like when no schoolchild has ever had it before?
It's an ironic turn of events: For years, schools have been getting rid of recess to spend more time on math and reading. It is notoriously hard to get reliable numbers on recess—recess policies vary from year to year, school to school, even classroom to classroom—but numerous surveys have found recess time declining. That's especially true in poorer school districts, where test scores are frequently low and principals panicked. The numbers show a clear trend: The more minority students a school has, and the lower the income level of their parents, the less time allotted for recess—nearly half of poor children go all day without it. They don't even have anywhere to have it: In Chicago, nearly 100 elementary and middle schools have no playgrounds at all. (The American Association of Pediatrics recently issued an impassioned statement on the "play deprivation" experienced by children in poverty.)
The arguments against recess are simple and no-nonsense, especially for these schools: What—you want the kids to play kickball when they're failing math? When the Atlanta public schools got rid of recess, its superintendent famously said, "We are intent on improving academic performance. You don't do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars."
These arguments work, Pellegrini says, "because attacking recess has got this sort of intuitive feel: If you give kids more time doing something, they'll do better in school. When in fact the opposite is probably the case." Repeated studies have shown that when recess is delayed, children pay less and less attention. They are more focused on days when they have recess. A major study in Pediatrics found that children with more than 15 minutes of recess a day were far better behaved in class than children who had shorter recess breaks or none at all.
They'll get more out of class, too: Children seem to learn more efficiently when information is spaced out—when it is distributed over time. It's been widely documented that the brain needs a break. High-performing East Asian schools have famously long school days—but much of the extra time is taken up by recess, not instruction. Which might be why recess is now back, even in places like Atlanta (although it is squeezed for time).
Despite the cognitive and social benefits of recess, principals still hate it: In the scholarship on recess, they inevitably describe their recess periods as total chaos. In Chicago, recess has been out of the schools so long that principals are nervous about having it back.
That's the twist in this rebirth-of-recess narrative: In part because of these fears, recess in many schools is now a very different beast. It's more structured and sports-focused, less dreamy and aimless. Whether it leads to the same cognitive and social benefits is an open question. The nonprofit organization Playworks puts full-time "recess coaches" in low-income schools—currently they're in 387 schools in 23 cities—who teach children how to play: They organize games; they model how to resolve disputes (rock-paper-scissors); they try to get kids more active and engaged. (A recent study found that schools with Playworks reported less bullying and better behavior.)
"Recess has changed because the times we live in have changed," says Playworks CEO Jill Vialet. Children no longer know how to play, she says; they don't run around after school with all the kids on their block. "What we're doing is creating just enough structure. That same structure that was created by the older kids in the neighborhood in times past—we're creating that now on the schoolyard."
Playworks doesn't make kids play, Vialet says, and the recess coach doesn't run recess. "There's multiple things happening on the schoolyard at any given point. The coach floats around the schoolyard." But the Playworks vision of recess—more structured, more orderly, more active—is very different from the traditional anything-goes break from class.
Recess may look problematic to the grown-ups, but for Pellegrini, the value of recess is that the children, not the adults, are in charge. It may not look pretty, but that's the point. "A very important part of what kids do on the playground is social competence—that is, they learn how to get along with others," he says. "You have to cooperate, you have to use language, you have to compromise. And that's not trivial. That is huge, in terms of both academic success and success in life."
And despite the fears of many administrators, who talk about recess as if it were a "Lord of the Flies" sequel, studies have shown that there is surprisingly little violence on playgrounds, says Pellegrini: "It accounts for less than 2 percent of all behavior."
For someone like Pellegrini, the structured recess of PlayWorks is anathema—the value of recess is in messy free play. For the principals in Playworks schools, structured recess is a godsend—precisely because it isn't messy.
My childhood memory of recess—as a break that came twice a day, like a natural phenomenon, and that was wonderfully aimless—may be nothing like the recess my children will someday have. The argument over whether to have recess may be ending. But the argument over what recess means is only now beginning. Can we give kids today the freedom to play? Or do we need a pedagogy of recess—a pedagogy of free time? The answer may depend on what we value most, or what we can afford to value most: order or chaos, activity or daydreaming, learning to play or learning to be.