Physical activity a key to student success

ROCHESTER — Educators should add recess to the three Rs — reading, writing and arithmetic — traditionally known as a formula for academic success.

That’s the consensus of advocates from the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency (FLHSA) based on a survey of recess policies they conducted as part of the agency’s Healthi Kids initiative. The survey of districts throughout Monroe County showed that a majority of the city school respondents do not incorporate recess into the school day as compared to students in suburban schools, said Rachel Pickering, Healthi Kids program manager.

"It’s essentially important right now with (issues from) obesity," remarked Johnnita Pough, a parent liaison with George Mather Forbes School No. 4, which was awarded additional play equipment for its recess policy. "Kids need to be more physically fit. … And we do notice that they focus more because they let out that extra energy."

That is why Pough said she is proud of the efforts by School No. 4 to ensure children take part in physical activity every day. The school even revised its policy so that students have at least 20 minutes of daily recess throughout the year, she explained.

Employees, community members and Advantage Federal Credit Union — the school’s community partner — even donated coats, hats and gloves so that all the students have what they need to safely play outside in the winter, she added. And the only time recess is cancelled is due to extreme weather conditions.

The school was one of 12 in the area to be awarded recess equipment — for their commitment to their students’ physical well-being — by the Greater Rochester Health Foundation (GRHF), according to Heidi Melancon, a senior program officer with the foundation. Each $2,000 recess set includes two storage carts and various types of playground equipment including hula hoops, Frisbees, balls, chalk and potato sacks.

The schools that were rewarded are among the 41 that responded to the community survey of recess policies that was conducted by phone last summer, explained Pickering. Twenty-five schools did not respond. Of those surveyed, 47 percent have a recess policy, from scheduled recess periods for individual classes to schoolwide practices requiring all children to go outside for recess, according to the survey.

While nearly 70 percent of all suburban schools surveyed have recess policies, only 34.6 percent of city schools have one, the survey noted. The likely cause for this is economics, Pickering said, because funds are needed for staffing and equipment.

While the assumption might be that city students need more time in the classroom to boost their academic achievements, Pough’s comments about the benefits of moving jibe with research that has been done, she noted.

"Clearly, city schools are struggling," Pickering said. "But it’s clear and the research concerning physical activity shows that getting away from their desks impacts students’ ability to learn. … They can focus more and they’re not as fidgety. So they can pay more attention to their teacher."

Results of a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics describes how students who were allowed at least 15 minutes of physical activity a day were more like to receive better teacher ratings of classroom behavior. Among its pool of more than 10,000 students who were 8 and 9 years old, children who were given little or no recess time were more likely to be black, to live in large cities in the Northeast and South, and to be from families with lower incomes and lower levels of education.

The need to promote physical activity, healthy eating and the creation of safe areas of play in urban neighborhoods are all part of the Healthi Kids grassroots, advocacy-focused initiative, said Minverva Padilla, a Healthi Kids program manager. The program’s five-pronged approach seeks to address the obesity issue that plagues the Rochester area and the nation, she and Pickering added.

Information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the national childhood obesity rate tripled for all children ages 6 to 11 over the last three decades. Locally, nearly 40 percent of Rochester children ages 2 to 18 are overweight or obese compared to 25 percent of suburban children in the same age group, according to a GRHF-funded survey conducted by University of Rochester Medical Center’s Golisano Children’s Hospital.

Along with the recess survey, Padilla said that Healthi Kids’ work has included assessing available areas of play for children in the city. She also does outreach work to community groups to create interaction among them for the benefit of children, she explained.

Because it’s when you create these connections that change can happen, she added.

"Neighbor meeting neighbor leads to neighbors looking out for each other’s kids," said Padilla, who grew up in northeast Rochester neighborhoods. "It’s exciting for me to do this kind of work because … that’s the way it was. Everyone knew everyone."

With the recess survey results in hand, FLHSA will work with its 27-member community coalition on helping districts boost their own practices and develop wellness programs, as well as work with community and neighborhood groups on creating those safe areas of play for city children.

FLHSA also is launching a petition drive to collect 2,000 signatures in support of 20 minutes of daily active play that it plans to present to the Rochester City School District’s board of education, Pickering said.

"We as a team are working … on engaging parents in these efforts and helping them understand the importance of recess," Padilla added.

The city also is playing a part in providing safe opportunities for outdoor play through its "Recreation on the Move," program, noted Marisol Lopez, administrator for the northeast quadrant’s neighborhood service center. The mobile unit’s staff not only provides play equipment but also homework assistance and tutoring, healthy snacks, and arts and cultural activities, according to

Pough, who was born and raised in Rochester, supports all efforts to get kids outside and playing. She recalls playing outside school and in her neighborhood as a child, noting that she and her friends did not have any fancy equipment. They used a fence as a net to play tennis or were happy just bouncing balls against a brick wall, she said.

"Nowadays, there’s so many video games; kids aren’t outside like they used to be," Pough remarked. "We didn’t have a choice. Even in the winter, our parents were like, ‘Go outside.’"

Often people are surprised to learn that there are students who don’t have recess, Pickering noted.

"We all remember the bell ringing and going outside and making up teams," she said. "We all have a common understanding of what recess was like when we were kids. … (Not having recess) is such a loss to childhood."

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