Home When More Work Leads to Lower Achievement (Part One)

When More Work Leads to Lower Achievement (Part One)

written by Sherri Fisher May 5, 2010

Sherri Fisher, MAPP '06, M.Ed., Director of Learn & Flourish LLC, is a leader in the field of positive education. An education management consultant and coach, workshop facilitator and author, Sherri uses the POS-EDGE Model to incorporate research-based findings from strengths psychology and behavioral economics into positive, personalized, best-practice strategies for learning, parenting, and work. Full Bio. Sherri's articles are here.

Empty Swings

Empty Swings

Would you send your child to a school whose schedule encouraged them to become socially inept, inattentive, overweight, depressed underachievers? Probably not. But these may be unintended side effects of the focus on increasing instructional time to maximize math and reading achievement scores.

Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Education Act (NCLB) in the United States, school districts have scrambled to meet their annual progress goals. Entire school districts have been found underperforming, and many schools have been closed. Recently in Michigan and Rhode Island, classroom teachers have been fired en masse for failing to measure up. Meanwhile, the schedule in most schools has been lengthened in structured academic areas and shortened in unstructured free time. It seems to make sense that spending more time on academics would yield higher performance. So why isn’t this the case?

Free Play

First let’s look at what the research says about the value of free play for children.

Shadow Play

Shadow Play

  • It increases imagination and creativity.
  • It allows children to organize their own games and rules.
  • It encourages movement and physical well-being.
  • Children learn problem solving skills and practice leadership.
  • They develop important social emotional skills.
  • Children manage stress and become more resilient.

At school, free play, when it happens at all, takes place during recess, defined as a break during the school day of 20 minutes or more that allows children the time for unstructured, undirected active free play.

Recess, however, is a casualty of several social and educational phenomena, including the focus on high-stakes testing, teacher and administrator fear of school violence and bullying, and the fear that lower performing schools can never catch up if they don’t devote more time to academic learning.

Given the limited number of hours in a school day, subjects like creative arts and physical education occupy reduced time in the schedule, too. This is despite research that connects reduced physical and social activity to child obesity, brain studies that show the importance of movement and creative activity to learning, and the availability of unstructured break times for children linked to development of social skills and improved attention.

Who Stays in From Recess?

So who does not get recess? A 2009 Pediatrics study of about 11,000 3rd graders (8-9 years old) taken from a demographically balanced national sample found that 30% of study children did not have recess at all or had less than a total 15 minutes of break daily. Children without recess were significantly more likely

No recess?

No recess?

  • to be Black or Hispanic
  • to live in a large or medium sized city
  • to live in the South
  • to attend public school
  • to come from families with lower income
  • to have parents with lower education attainment
  • to have poorer focus/attention on their teacher and on assigned tasks

The trend toward reducing recess has serious consequences for our most disadvantaged children, who often live in unsafe neighborhoods and for whom supervised free play at school may be the only place they can safely engage in physical activity, social skills development, and problem solving to build the healthy foundation that leads to flourishing.

Play with Other Children Matters

Especially for elementary-aged children, engaging in active social play improves

Active Social Play

Active Social Play

  • physical health
  • school adjustment
  • social connection and friendship skills
  • reciprocal role taking, perspective skills and resilience
  • behavioral flexibility and negotiation skills
  • cognitive flexibility

A Gallup Poll published this year surveyed nearly 2000 school principals nationwide who overwhelmingly agreed that recess has a positive impact on the social development (96%), general well-being (97%), and listening/focus (67%) of children. Importantly, 80% of principals surveyed also believe recess has a positive effect on academic achievement. The American Academy of Pediatrics has pressed the importance of free play as an essential part of healthy physical and optimal brain development, and the National Association for Sport and Physical Education also supports school recess for at least 20 minutes per day.

In an age where bullying, school violence and youth suicide are growing concerns, especially among middle and high school students, building healthy elementary schoolers is a great place to cultivate the physical, intellectual, and emotional capital that can prevent future problems.

Physical Activity = Mental “Miracle-Gro”

John Ratey, MD, calls exercise “Mental Miracle-Gro”. Exercise encourages brain cells to grow new synapses that make the connections among neural nets the brain needs in order to learn and remember. The California Department of Education has consistently shown that students with higher fitness scores also have higher test scores. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that third and fifth grade students in an Indiana study who had higher aerobic capacity and lower body mass index had higher total academic achievement, math achievement, and reading achievement.

Getting Fit

Getting Fit

Physical activity is also positively correlated with cognition skills, and vigorous physical activity is positively correlated with higher school grades. Children with higher fitness levels also have more attentional resources for working memory. A test that measured children’s levels of executive functions showed that those who spent 40 minutes a day playing tag and taking part in other active games designed by researchers were significantly more capable of the cognitive processes that involve planning, organizing, abstract thinking, or self-control. In a Massachusetts study of public school 4th, 6th and 8th graders, those with higher physical fitness achievement were even found to be more likely to pass the state assessments (MCAS), among the most challenging in the nation.

So why do the neediest students go without, and what can be done about this? The good news is that clearly, a school’s academic effectiveness is about more than what happens in the classroom. In the next part of this series, you’ll learn what adults need to know about increasing their achievement.

Author’s Note: This article was inspired by a comment from PPND author Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar on my article Nurturing Your Creative Mindset. Don’t miss her continuation of this topic on May 24th when Part Two of  “When More Work Leads to Lower Achievement” will be published.



Barros, R.M., Silver, E.J., & Stein, R.E.K. (2009). School recess and group classroom behavior. Pediatrics, 123; 431-436.

Castelli, D.M., Hillman, C.H., Buck, S.M., Erwin, H.E. ( 2007). Physical fitness and academic achievement in third and fifth grade students. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 29, 239-252.

Elkind, D. (2007). The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally. Da Capo Press.

Jarrett, O.S. (2002). Recess in elementary school: What does the research say? ERIC Digest. 466331 2002-07-00.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. ( 2009). Recess — It’s indispensable!  in Play, Policy, and Practice interest forum. Reprinted from Young Children, Sept. 2009.

Pellegrini,A.D. & Bohn, C.M. (2005). (2005). The role of recess in children’s cognitive performance and school adjustment. Educational Researcher. Jan/Feb 2005, 13-19.

Ratey, J. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

The State of Play: Gallup Survey of Principals on School Recess. (2010). Princeton: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Wolk, S. (2008). Joy in school. The Positive Classroom, 66:1, 8-15.


The Four Swings courtesy of Johnny Taise

Shadow Play courtesy of trvbaker

She has my eyes courtesy of Celeste.p.jones

Rainbow Parachute courtesy of TomFlikrPhotos

Little Soccer Player Stretching, Royalty Free/Corbis