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Let's Play More in 2024

Happy, Healthy Kids Need More Time Outdoors During the School Day

by Amy Lightbourn

Norwalk parents: what do you desire, above all else, for your children? Chances are, you’d answer “good health and happiness.” Once children turn 5 or 6, they spend about 7 hours per day, or 35 hours per week, at school. With Connecticut’s 36-week school year, that’s 1,260 hours per year—or about 25% of children’s waking hours* for the entire year. So, if a parent’s top priority is their children’s health and happiness, school is a critical factor to consider.

UNESCO recently sparked interest in studying what makes a happy school. UNESCO defines a happy school as “a place that supports the learning, health, and well-being of individuals, families and communities.” Using UNESCO’s Happy Schools Project framework—which assesses schools in the categories of people, process, principles, and place—researchers surveyed Portuguese students on what makes a happy school. In their September 2023 article, researchers found, for the place category: “In a happy school, students learn outdoors, making the playground and nature their classroom.”

During school hours in Norwalk schools, students spend only 20 minutes outside for recess. Outside time varies only slightly from school to school—a few elementary schools give an extra 5 minutes for recess (totaling 25 minutes daily)—and certain teachers try to give their students extra time outside, for example, taking Kindergarteners outside for story time rather than sitting indoors. When it comes to PE, it is typically held only once per 4 “specials” rotations, so effectively only once per week—and it is often inside of a gym, even on a beautiful day.

A 2022 study of Fort Worth, Texas fourth graders over a 3-month period found that children with a 45-minute daily recess had significantly less of the stress hormone cortisol than students with a 30-minute recess.

Among the benefits of longer outdoor free play (recess): helps children learn better, results in improved behavior, enhances their mental and physical health, and makes the school day more enjoyable.

So why, in Norwalk schools, are our children allotted a mere 20 minutes per day to play outside? Why are we opting for simplifying logistics over children’s physical and mental wellness? There are even stories of certain elementary school teachers taking away recess as punishment, something researchers say should be forbidden.

We must do better for Norwalk students—time spent outdoors playing freely and being active is clearly linked to improved health and happiness. According to a medically reviewed WebMD article, “More than 400 studies have shown a connection between exposure to green spaces and better health … children who spend more time outdoors are less likely to develop myopia (near sightedness) … and they’re exposed to more friendly bacteria, which may play a role in boosting immune function long-term. In the end, they also tend to live longer, several large recent studies have shown.”

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