It’s All About the Jungle Gyms: The Cognitive Importance of Recess

Neither straight rows, nor wooden desks, nor cursive writing occur in nature. They are all outgrowths of the human intellect. Nonetheless, if my own family’s experience is any indicator, they are a bit less natural for boys than they are for girls. I was not a boy who had an easy time sitting still, and my son, now 13, hasn’t even managed to reach my bar. Boys, in nature and in school, are usually pretty wiggly.

As the parent of a wiggly pre-adolescent male, and as a reformed wiggler myself, I know only too well how excess energy is punished in many American classrooms: you lose your recess. As a parent, I find this amazing. Why would anybody think that the best way to stop a kid from wiggling would be to keep them inside when everybody else is running and playing and getting worn out? Why not double recess and have them run laps? But I don’t make the rules, nor do I have to suffer the consequences of a room full of squirmy boys in an afternoon class.

But it is getting harder and harder to take away kids’ recesses, as there is less and less recess to take away. The morning and afternoon recesses that I remember  all through elementary school have been shrinking steadily to make room for more important things, instructional things, things like math and reading that are covered in state assessment tests. Things that make sure that children are not left behind.

Except that they don’t. And recess does. Really. I’m not talking about the physical education aspect of unstructured exercise, or, for that matter, the fact that kids need to run around and expend excess energy (which they do). I am talking about learning–the cognitive development that is supposed to be the main reason that we send kids to school in the first place. As I look back on my time in elementary school, I can see that, in a very real, non-trivial way, it was recess, more than math or science or reading or history that prepared me for the job I now have and the life I now lead. I am the person I am because of what I learned on the playground, much more than because of anything I learned inside the school.

This is not hyperbole, nor is it a clumsy attempt to rework Robert Fulghum’s All I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. There are all sorts of cutesy life lessons that one can draw from sandboxes and jungle gyms, I suppose, but that is not my goal here. Rather, I assert, without irony, that recess is a more intellectually challenging, cognitively demanding, and developmentally necessary activity than anything that goes on during the day’s lesser learning activities. This is true because recess is, for most students, the only time that they interact with each other directly, free from structured activities and adult supervision. It is during this time that they learn how groups function, how power flows through informal channels, how pecking orders are established, how alliances are formed, and how social threats can be neutralized. It is the only time during the day when a group of children who have not selected each other’s company come together as Hobbesian natural beings and go through the initial steps of creating a social contract.

It is, in other words, the only time during the school day when children actually use their brains the way that brains were designed to be used.

This, at least, is the current thinking of most cognitive psychologists studying the question, “why do human beings have such big brains in the first place.” We have long known that human cognition is much more developed than any program of hunting and gathering could reasonably require. And it is becoming clearer and clearer that the major environmental factor that required human beings to develop advanced cognition was other human beings–other minds with other needs and desires without whose help our ancestors could not have survived. In another venue, I recently addressed this issue as part of my own scholarship:

Research suggests that human evolution occurred largely within groups of about 150 human members (which remains the ideal size for many social organizations today). In order to interact successfully in such a group, a person would have had to keep track of 149 other minds. He or she would need to understand each other person’s motives, history, and temperament and would have to show some understanding of each person’s relationships with each of the other members in the group. In this way, a person could attract mates, form alliances, reciprocate both slights and favors, and acquire status within the group. Keeping track of 150 minds and the millions of possible relationships among those minds requires much more computational power than playing a game of chess or composing “Claire de Lune.” (Austin, Useful Fictions, p. 83)

The current educational orthodoxy–that what happens in the classroom is important while recess is “extra”–gets it exactly wrong. Math and science and reading and cursive writing all have their place, to be sure, in the grand scheme of things, they are simply byproducts of the cognitive functioning that really matters. Unmediated group formation–complete with status hierarchies, romantic rivalries, alliances, betrayals, and reciprocal favor-trading–demands that children use every ounce of brain power that they possess. And, as difficult as life will be for children who never learn to write cursive or solve quadratic equations, their deprivations are nothing compared to those of the children who never develop the skills necessary to make it through recess.

Post By Michael Austin (12 Posts)

I am the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Newman University. I am also a professor of English and the author of two books on literature and human cognition and one college textbook on the great ideas tradition in Western and Non-Western cultures. I can be reached most days at austinm@newmanu.edu.

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About Michael Austin

Michael Austin has written 12 post in this blog.

I am the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Newman University. I am also a professor of English and the author of two books on literature and human cognition and one college textbook on the great ideas tradition in Western and Non-Western cultures. I can be reached most days at austinm@newmanu.edu.

About Michael Austin

I am the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Newman University. I am also a professor of English and the author of two books on literature and human cognition and one college textbook on the great ideas tradition in Western and Non-Western cultures. I can be reached most days at austinm@newmanu.edu.
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