When Frisco mom of four Sarah McMullin and her family moved from Utah to Texas, she discovered that most schools here offered only one recess a day—a far cry from the two to three recesses her daughter Hero was used to at her Montessori program back home. “She would come home and she was just grumpy. She had no energy for after-school activities,” McMullin says.
She became one of the original members of the Facebook group Frisco Parents for Recess, which pushed for more playtime in Frisco Independent School District.
Children need 60 minutes of “moderate to vigorous activity per day,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The desire for children to have more playtime outside is not just about physical activity, however.
“It’s important to learn addition and subtraction and all that, but it’s just as important to learn how to talk to people and how to resolve conflict with people—and that’s where the power of play comes in,” McMullin says.
The solution: brain breaks.
What’s a Brain Break?
McMullin’s stress about her daughters’ minimal playtime was relieved with the introduction of brain breaks. The pilot program, started by the district last year, offered five elementary schools 10–15 minutes of additional free play for students, on top of the 30-minute recess that students get each day. The purpose of the program? To give children a much-needed break from the classroom and further develop their social-emotional learning, says Christy Fiori, managing director of elementary schools in Frisco ISD.
Besides the freedom to play however they choose, kids have access to resources to engage in play with one another, including hopscotch rugs, hula hoops, life-size versions of Jenga, chess and Connect 4, and pits for gaga ball, a dodgeball-like game where the object is to avoid getting hit below the knee.
Fiori reminds parents, however, that the pilot program isn’t just another recess and shouldn’t be called one. The shorter duration and the varied locations distinguish brain breaks from traditional recess, Fiori says—unlike recess, which takes place on the playground, a brain break can happen elsewhere, like a courtyard or a hallway. And brain breaks have a different function.
“We’re calling it something different from recess because we really see it as an extension of that social-emotional learning,” Fiori explains.
While she says the reactions from parents were “overwhelmingly positive” after the pilot program’s launch, some parents originally voiced a primary concern.
“Other parents had questions, concerns that the break would take away from their child’s education,” says Frisco mom Ashley Hale.
Fiori acknowledges that class time does decrease by 10–15 minutes, but clarifies that the minutes taken away are spread out and not concentrated in just one subject. And brain breaks are intended to advance the children’s education, just in a different way. Students are encouraged to collaborate with one another in the classroom, but Fiori says social interactions during brain breaks are another way for them to learn problem-solving skills and build positive relationships with peers.
“We know those are really important skills, not only in the classroom but in the real world that they’re going to need to be masterful at,” she explains.
The Power of Play
“Children, from time of birth through early childhood, need to play often in their lives—their bodies need play,” says Debbie Rhea, a professor at Texas Christian University and director of the Let’s Inspire Innovation ‘N Kids, or LiiNK Project. The initiative partners with schools for at least three years to give elementary students four 15-minute unstructured recesses throughout the school day, with goals similar to those of the brain breaks program in Frisco.
Districts such as Arlington, Eagle Mountain-Saginaw, Little Elm and Irving have adopted the LiiNK Project. Collectively, those districts saw a 25% drop in off-task behaviors (like fidgeting and moving around during class) during the first year of the program.
Rhea adds that playtime helps decrease obesity and other diseases while boosting kids’ immune systems and ability to learn. “They are building a lot of neurological highways in their brains to be able to retain more information,” she says.
Hale, mom to triplets August, Luke and Henry, says she recognized a change in her boys after the advent of brain breaks at their Frisco elementary school.
“There was less fighting at home after school,” Hale says, noting a particular change in her son Luke, who has dyslexia. “Reading and spelling are a little bit more difficult for him, so I think it’s really helped school just feel not as tasking for him.”
The brain breaks program is still in its pilot run but has been expanded to all 42 Frisco ISD elementary schools this school year. With the expansion of the program and others like it in local districts, it seems like parents who want more playtime are being heard.
“The power of play is huge for a child,” McMullin shares.
Launched in 2013 by Texas Christian University professor Debbie Rhea, the Let’s Inspire Innovation ‘N Kids, or LiiNK Project, promotes playtime and character development in elementary schools. Want your school to try it out? Share the video on the program’s homepage (liinkproject.tcu.edu) with your child’s school principal or district superintendent, along with the other research and resources available on the site. If school administrators are interested in collaborating, they can reach out to the LiiNK Project for more information. The program has already partnered with multiple local school districts and private schools.
Image courtesy of Frisco ISD.