Recipe for kids school success? Play outdoors!

Kids playing in leaves.

Flickr, Seth Lemmons

A study published on Sept. 29 has demonstrated the importance of school recess - and not merely for health reasons.

We know getting kids outdoors helps them be healthier and happier. It also makes them more likely to care about wild lands later in life - but that's just the beginning of how much smarter they become.

The research, published in Pediatrics, showed that children who play 70 minutes a day are able to think better than those who are more inactive.

Scientists conducted the study with 109 7-to-9-year-old students in an after-school fitness program at the University of Illinois. Those who played outdoors were significantly faster and more accurate when given multitasking tests than those who were inactive.

Brain scans also showed increased brain activity corresponding to paying attention during the tests. What's more is that the more times that the kids attended the program, the greater the change in their brain activity.

Lead author Charles Hillman noted that these effects resulted from merely small changes to the kids' activity - only about 6% overall change in fitness.

"We were designed to move," said Hillman, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Kids tend to move and get their exercise intermittently. They don't go out and run four miles like an adult might."

Some are hopeful that this evidence will lend more support to other claims that physical activity improves school performance. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics released a report in January 2012 that urged schools not to cut recess, which offers unstructured playtime they deemed essential to children's overall health - and that physical education is not a substitute. 

The report was a response to the fact that many school districts have been reducing recess time to as little as 15 minutes a day in order to increase instructional time to meet the expectations set by the No Child Left Behind Act.

"Recognizing the need for schools -- on ever-more-stretched budgets and time constraints -- to foster academic achievement amid new calls to support physical activity/obesity prevention, our study suggests that recess promotes a healthy learning environment and can help schools in meeting both demands," said Catherine Ramstetter, lead researcher of the 2012 report.

The Wilderness Society agrees that outdoor play is important for America's youth - and for America's wild lands. Help us get kids outdoors through recreation in wild lands - and legislation.


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