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

When More Work Leads to Lower Achievement (Part One)

written by Sherri Fisher 5 May 2010

Sherri Fisher, MAPP '06, M.Ed., Director of Learn and Flourish LLC, is a coach, best-selling author, workshop facilitator, and speaker. She works internationally with smart people of all ages who have learning, attention, and executive function challenges. Sherri’s evidence-based POS-EDGE® Model merges her expertise in strengths, well-being, motivation, and applied neuropsychology.

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

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Jeremy McCarthy 5 May 2010 - 9:46 am

Yes! And how about recess for adults while we’re at it!

Sherri Fisher 5 May 2010 - 12:56 pm

Hi, Jeremy-
This is a great idea. In Part Two of the article series Marie-Josee will be addressing adults. I know that in schools where I have worked adult recess was non-existent. After all, they are paying you to work, not play. Every moment is used to get your job done, both at school and afterwards. It is easy to imagine why so many teachers (half of all teachers new to the job in the first five years!!) leave.

So stay tuned! I did not do an exhaustive review of research on adult recess. Let me know if you have an article to get me started on that!

Kathryn Britton 5 May 2010 - 1:34 pm

My sister recently reminded me of something.

My mother was the director of a county library system in Kitsap county, Washington. She required staff to take lunch hours and morning and afternoon 15-minute breaks away from their work locations (circulation desk, cataloging work station, etc.).

She said it made them better workers when they returned.

So adult recesses used to exist….


Bill McPeck 5 May 2010 - 1:51 pm

Ah come on. Do we really need adult recess?? Aside from the obvious health benefits from increased physical activity, seems to me that if we believe Gallup’s numbers on employee engagement, only 50% of today’s employees are engaged in work in the average organization. It looks to me like adult recess is already in place and there are lots of moments where work is not getting done…..

Rather than focusing on adult recess, how about we use what we know from positive psychology research and focus on helping employers create an environment where workers are appreciated, recognized, valued and treated with respect for the work they do.

Bill McPeck

Sherri Fisher 5 May 2010 - 2:20 pm

Hi, Bill-
This is an interesting point of view–that a better work environment will increase engagement, and I agree–but that is not what the Gallup numbers say.

Disengagement is not recess. Recess is an unstructured time when you and your peers can take a break. The Gallup Poll did not parse the data to compare people with breaks versus those without and then correlate with engagement or lack thereof.

There is lots of opportunity for PP research to identify the “what works” in a work environment. What works for some people does mot necessarily work for everyone.

Do you like working all day without a break?


Sherri Fisher 5 May 2010 - 2:29 pm

Hi, Kathryn-
Amazing, isn’t it, how times have changed? Tired workers are irritable and unfocused. That is part of the recipe for work distress. We can either blame them for this (and pathologize them by assigning them to anger management therapy, for example) or see what changes can result in happier and more effective workers. Your mom was tuned into what made the system work. Good for her!
🙂 Sherri

Oz 5 May 2010 - 4:33 pm

Sherri – we are on the same page – exercise is the most powerful PP intervention.

I’d like to suggest that another form of recess for adults might be mindfulness.

Todd Kashdan 6 May 2010 - 9:35 am

Sherri, nice work. You set a good example for how to write an original, interesting PPND article.

Sherri Fisher 6 May 2010 - 10:25 am

Thanks, Todd!
I had fun writing it and I am so glad that you enjoyed my original approach. Last month I wrote about creativity and originality. Priming???

Sherri Fisher 6 May 2010 - 10:26 am

Hi, Wayne-
Nice to be on the same page as you!!
🙂 Sherri

Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar 6 May 2010 - 11:39 am

Interesting discussion, which I am looking forward to pursue on the 24th after I discuss the adult part of the question in more depth! In the meantime, just wanted to give kudos to Sherri for writing a great article and starting a good and important conversation.
Very best,

mrskavs 26 November 2010 - 11:38 am

I’m not sure all the blame is on schools – time management in the classroom is one part of the puzzle here. Overloaded family activities and less unstructured play is a fact for many children outside of school. Balance, simplicity, realistic expectations; all things parents need guidance to provide in contrast to the rigors of academia. Children are at school in total about 6-7 hours a day… that leaves a lot of time for parents to control. I think we as parents forget that we don’t know it all and don’t work at setting the tone as much as we might try too hard, becoming helicopters rather than trampolines or the opposite extreme when parents are underachieving because they just don’t know any better.

Sherri Fisher 26 November 2010 - 1:38 pm

Hi, Mrskavs-
I agree that parents are important teachers of their children! This article, however, focuses on empirical research that shows the benefits of unstructured play in a school setting, and it shows that the children who have the biggest achievement gap get the least of this valuable time. Put into perspective that children in extended academic school day settings may spend 8 or 9 hours a day at school plus have homework responsibilities. To get the most out of academic time, research shows that we need to give kids a break. Out of curiosity, are you a teacher?

mrskavs 28 November 2010 - 3:33 pm

I have been a parent for 20 years and a swim instructor for 25 : ) I do work in a school setting and I have read the NCLB legislation and was involved in helping make sure several aspects of it were in force or added in my local district. I know my children needed me to to make home a launching pad for life, keep things organized and primed for freedom and choice. They did have plenty of homework, summer projects and assignments that needed to be completed over weekends and vacations. Time management and flexibility are the key to creating balance and giving freedom. I think in school sometimes teachers and administration get a little too caught up in the letter of the law so to speak and miss the spirit of intentions behind guidelines. A change in focus and positivity without coddling would go a long way to improving things. : )

Sherri Fisher 28 November 2010 - 5:10 pm

Hi, mrskavs-
I agree that positivity and going with the “spirit of the law” rather than the “letter of the law” can be very helpful sometimes. Since that is more easily said than done in most public school settings, and it requires a very trusting and supportive administration as well as a capable faculty, I imagine that many school districts are worried about what that might mean. Can you give some specific examples of ways you have seen this work? Many people (the ones who assign funding, for example) would not agree that education law is a series of “guidelines” as you mention above, that are open to interpretation.

Do you think recess is important, for example? It is not specifically part of the law.


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