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No Rules Recess: School Encourages "Dangerous" Free Play for Better Attention and Emotional Grounding |

Why some Schools are Encouraging “Dangerous” Free Play at Recess for Learning

This article provides important information about the importance of free play that can help attention and focus in the classroom. Integrated Learning Strategies (ILS) is a learning and academic center. As a reminder, ILS is not a health care provider and none of our materials or services provide a diagnosis or treatment of a specific condition or learning challenge you may see in your child or student. If you seek a diagnosis or treatment for your child or student, please contact a trained professional who can provide an evaluation of the child.

Today, many schools can only dream about student improvements in concentration and better attention, decreased bullying incidents, increased self-confidence and tons of movement to train the brain and burn off energy. However, one school in New Zealand and also in Finland is seeing these exact results with longer recess periods and more risk playgrounds for their students. With all the pressures to do more work and less free play so children can compete for better colleges and more substantial career opportunities, we are actually counteracting our academic efforts by taking away the one thing that actually provides our children with the cognitive development they need to excel at a higher level; recess. So that begs the question “Is what New Zealand doing too good to be true or a crazy approach that’s crazy enough to work?”

Interestingly enough, more researchers are seeing declines in school-aged children who aren’t getting enough free play in their daily “diet” with activities that help improve their vestibular, proprioception, visual planning, hand-eye coordination and gross motor development. More sensory issues are on the rise as a result, which has led to increases in poor behavior and social issues.

In addition, not only are schools playing it safe with playgrounds that aren’t contributing to your child’s development, most schools now only provide 20-minute recess breaks, if that. Free play at recess may seem more like a privilege for children, but in actuality, it is essential to their learning development and cognitive growth in the classroom. All of the activities a child does on the playground like crashing, spinning, jumping, throwing balls, swinging on monkey bars and playing hopscotch build neural connections in the right and left sides of the brain for better attention and focus, speech and language, communication, input and output of information, handwriting, reading, letter recognition and auditory processing for listening to the teacher.

The two, 40-minute no rules recess sessions this New Zealand school provides would seem like pure chaos, however, it’s proving that students are performing better in the classroom. As you walk through the playground, it is filled with junk and most parents don’t know where the items came from. There are old pieces of timber, wire, steel poles, boxes, and the list goes on. Kids are climbing in trees, probably higher than they should, and building makeshift playground equipment like seesaws.

The students are allowed to ride bikes, scooters, play contact games, swing on ropes, roll in huge tires and create their own toys. To adults, it looks like trash, but to kids, it provides endless possibilities to be creative, problem solve, use their imagination, role play, improve critical thinking and most importantly, enhance their cognitive development.

Many parents may ask, “What is going on during recess? Are the administrators not concerned about injuries or a child getting seriously hurt?” The answer is no. When asked about this unique take on recess, Principal Bruce McLachlan just smiled and said, “There are basically no rules, the kids make the rules.” How does all of this “no rules” mantra create such an enriching learning environment when all the free-for-all ends and the students go back into the classroom?

After the research study began at this New Zealand school, teachers expressed how students were more focused, showed less signs of fidgeting and there was a visible increase in concentration. Bullying also decreased and injuries were surprisingly less frequent.

Maybe this school, and others that have followed the idea, have a great model to increase physical stimulus and movement with children. Perhaps this no-rules program will pay off because it seems risk is good for young brains. Children need movement; they need imaginative play, a freedom perhaps from adult rules that are extraneous.

How No-rules Recess Improves Emotional Grounding

The part of the child’s brain that manages risk and controls emotion develops when they are exposed to risk and different emotions. If there are constant rules, especially during free-play time, it obstructs this necessary development, which is why we see more issues in a student’s behavior, emotional grounding, fight or flight and higher-risks for anxiety. The structure in the brain largely responsible for management of emotion and risk is the amygdala. This small structure is part of the limbic system and center for emotions, emotional behavior and motivation and risk.

The prefrontal cortex is also developing at an extremely rapid rate, which is responsible for organizing, planning, problem solving, social skills, behavioral control and conscious movement. This part of the brain develops through childhood into early adulthood. As kids exercise their prefrontal cortex, it develops and prepares for future situations. The prefrontal cortex runs simulations about the consequences of our behavior.

The child begins to think “If I do this, then this consequence will happen.” So out on the rule-free playground we have a combination of executive functioning development, learning through hands-on experiences to control emotions and behavior, and tons of physical movement. Sounds like a great recipe!

Why is Free Play and Purposeful Movement Important?

Physical movement directly affects behavior and development of the brain. Study after study clearly shows it not only improves concentration and focus, but it enhances a child’s executive function and memory.

In a study entitled, The Association Between School-Based Physical Activity, Including Physical Education, and Academic Performance, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states, “Physical activity can have an impact on cognitive skills and attitudes and academic behavior, all of which are important components of improved academic performance. These include enhanced concentration and attention as well as improved classroom behavior.”

Physical movement has a profound impact on the brain in the following ways:

  • Increased oxygen flow to the brain
  • Brain neurotransmitters are firing quicker and more efficiently
  • Increase in neurotrophins make sure the brain neurons are surviving in areas that are important for learning and higher thinking.

There are many benefits with this new approach to recess. We must also realize that many schools may not be ready for this type of free-for-all. Schools may want this type of play-based structure, but decisions lie with administrators and parents supporting not only the idea that there needs to be less rules on the playgrounds and more unconventional playground equipment, but also less control with their own children. When educators and parents decide to allow students to engage in this type of non-structured play, it will provide them with the sensory integration they need to perform better in their surrounding environment as well as in their academic performance.

Rewiring the Brain Roadmap

If you have an overly emotional child, they may be “stuck” on the emotional side of the brain. To help get them on the right path, download the Rewiring the Brain Roadmap below. The roadmap can get you started on ways to approach your child or student’s emotional well-being. It will also help you determine your child or student’s emotional “type.” 

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Integrated Learning Strategies is a Utah-based center dedicated to helping mainstream children and children with learning challenges achieve academic success. Our services provide kids with non-traditional tutoring programs within the Davis County, Kaysville, Layton, Syracuse, Farmington, and Centerville areas. Areas to find Integrated Learning Strategies include: Reading tutors in Kaysville, Math tutors in Kaysville, Common Core Tutors in Kaysville, Tutors in Utah, Utah Tutoring Programs

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