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Four times a day, the doors of Eagle Mountain Elementary in Fort Worth, Texas, fling open to let bouncy, bubbly, excited kindergarteners and first-graders pounce onto the playground.
The youngest kids at this school now enjoy two 15-minute breaks in the morning and two in the afternoon for a total of one hour of recess a day. That’s three times longer and three more breaks than they used to get.
The children always go outside to play games or use the swings and slides, even if it’s drizzly or cold.
“There was a part of me that was very nervous about it,” Donna McBride, a first-grade teacher at the school, told TODAY Parents.
“I was trying to wrap my head around my class going outside four times a day and still being able to teach those children all the things they needed to learn.”
Some five months into the experiment, McBride’s fears have been alleviated. Her students are less fidgety and more focused, she said. They listen more attentively, follow directions and try to solve problems on their own instead of coming to the teacher to fix everything. There are fewer discipline issues.
“We’re seeing really good results,” she noted.
Parents are seeing them, too. Amy Longspaugh noticed her 6-year-old daughter Maribel, who is in McBride’s class, has become more independent and writes with more detail and creativity. Maribel has also made more friends as the kids mingle outside.
“It is what they look forward to every day,” Longspaugh said.
Eagle Mountain Elementary is one of four public schools in the Fort Worth area trying out LiiNK, a new program that boosts the amount of recess for the youngest students. The goal: to help children focus and learn better once they’re back in class.
“You start putting 15 minutes of what I call reboot into these kids every so often and… it gives the platform for them to be able to function at their best level,” said Debbie Rhea, a kinesiology professor at Texas Christian University who created the project.
The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees, calling recess “a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development.” Studies show it offers important cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits, yet many schools are cutting down on breaks to squeeze in more lessons, which may be counterproductive, it warns.
LiiNK was inspired by Finland’s education system, which produces students who get some of the best scores in the world for reading, math and science.
Rhea spent a 6-week sabbatical in Finland in 2012 to observe what the country was doing differently and noticed Finnish kids received lots of breaks during the school day, enjoying 15 minutes of “unstructured outdoor play” every hour.
Children in the U.S., on the other hand, might get one 15-minute recess a day, plus some in-class stretch time, she noted.
“That’s not enough for kids. They’re not built that way,” Rhea said. “[Recess] reboots the system so that when they go back in, they’re ready to learn, they’re focused.”
They key is “unstructured play,” which Rhea described as kids being allowed to run, play and make up their own games while teachers mostly stay on the sidelines to make sure everyone is safe.
The breaks should take place outdoors because fresh air, natural light and vivid colors all have a big impact on the brain and its function, she added.
Fears of a backlash
When Rhea approached a few local schools with the idea, some were worried the kids would be less attentive and academic achievement would suffer. There was also concern about a backlash from parents.
“It’s that fear that your children are not going to have the highest test scores,” said Longspaugh, who is Eagle Mountain Elementary’s PTA president. “Sometimes, I think that we look at a number versus the whole child.”
After seeing all the improvements, most parents are now on board with the project, Longspaugh noted. Both she and McBride would recommend it to other schools, while Bryan McLain, principal of Eagle Mountain Elementary, called the results “impressive.”
The program, which Rhea first implemented in two private schools two years ago, is set to expand even more this fall, with more schools in Texas, a school in Oklahoma, and charter schools in Minnesota and Utah set to try it. School districts in California and Pennsylvania have also expressed interest, Rhea said.
When a school signs up, it always starts with kindergarten and first-grade students, then adds a grade level each year. Rhea has 3-year agreements with the school districts.
“All this is working,” she noted. “I don’t think there’s a school district out there right now that doesn’t think that we need it.”
Note: This story was originally published January 8, 2016.