In March 2020, every state in the United States closed their schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, affecting millions of students (1). Worldwide, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization estimates that 1.2 billion learners, 67.7% of the student population, were affected by school closures as of May 25, 2020 (2). Now, schools worldwide are opening or planning to open, with guidance being released by local (e.g., statewide), national (e.g., from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and international (e.g., from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the World Health Organization) agencies (3) and academics (4). School reopening must be done carefully because droplet, airborne, and fomite modes of child–child and/or child–adult transmission are of concern. However, in these school reopening plans, physical activity opportunities are often disregarded when they instead should be highlighted.
The benefits of physical activity are cardiovascular, metabolic, cognitive, and psychosocial in nature. In addition to helping negate the positive energy balance associated with childhood obesity, there is strong evidence for a positive effect of physical activity on cardiovascular and muscular fitness and moderate evidence to support a relationship between physical activity and cardiometabolic health biomarkers and reduced depression symptoms in youth (5). Participation in physical activity as a child may affect the development of fundamental motor skills (6) and participation in physical activity across the life-span (7). Thus, although the short-term implications of COVID-19 are present in everyone’s mind, we posit that the long-term implications of withholding physical activity opportunities from children cannot be ignored as a public health concern.
The two main pathways through which children obtain physical activity during the school day are physical education class and recess. Although the importance of physical education cannot be denied, recess is the only opportunity for children to participate in daily unstructured free-play physical activity during the otherwise sedentary school day (8). Unstructured physical activities are spontaneous and typically do not necessarily have a purpose. Recess contributes up to 70% of children’s weekday physical activity (9), which may be particularly important for marginalized children who might not be able to play outside in their neighborhood because of availability of space or safety concerns (10). In addition to attainment of national physical activity guidelines, there are several additional benefits of recess. In the present commentary, we focus on development and practice of social skills, participation in a variety of activities, development of autonomy, and mental health and cognitive benefits (e.g., better classroom behavior and lower stress) as core benefits of recess (11).
Recess may be regarded as a high-risk time for COVID-19 transmission because of children interacting, being physically active, breathing hard, and using shared equipment. Although the risk of transmission during specific recess activities is unknown, it is important to point out that outdoor transmission may be less likely because of dilution of airborne pathogens and the ability of sunlight to rapidly inactivate the virus (12). Children may also have a reduced capacity to infect others (infectivity ) or be infected (susceptibility ) by COVID-19 compared with adults. Regardless, strategies to mitigate potential risks during recess have been proposed. Countries like Singapore have relied on staggered recess times to reduce the number of children on the schoolyard, whereas children in Denmark and Norway play in small groups and/or in prespecified playground zones with increased adult supervision (3). Alarmingly, some have gone so far as to suggest closure of playgrounds or cancelation or shortening of recess (3,4). We will not only reiterate the physical and psychological benefits of outdoor recess but also emphasize that this is not an acceptable strategy. Although it is critical that recess be offered in schools (8), it must be offered in a way that balances reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission with providing the benefits of recess to children.
In this commentary, we outline strategies that all schools may be able to implement (general strategies) that can reduce risk of COVID-19 transmission but should not adversely affect children’s ability to confer the benefits of recess. Then, we examine strategies that schools may choose to implement individually to further mitigate risks based on their schoolyard design, school organization, and available resources (specific strategies). Our purpose is not to evaluate the efficacy of these strategies for mitigating transmission risk, but rather to begin a discussion of options for recess and consider the potential effect of these policies on children’s attainment of five core benefits of recess (participation in physical activity, development and practice of social skills, participation in a variety of activities, development of autonomy, and mental health and cognitive benefits). Of note, we focus on reducing risk while maintaining the benefits of outdoor recess, specifically. Although indoor recess would be better than no recess, there may be issues with inadequate ventilation or space for physical activity for all children. Similarly, provision of physical education is paramount; it also should not be cut upon return to school, but it is not a substitute for free-play outdoor time (recess).
There are several strategies that all schools may implement, if possible, based on their resources, that will not adversely affect children’s ability to attain the benefits of recess. First and foremost, hand washing with soap and water both before and after recess should be prioritized, with hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol used in situations when this is not feasible. Cleaning should occur based on frequency of use and should be done when children are not in the area to reduce exposure risks. Preferably, cleaning would be done using an Environmental Protection Agency-registered disinfectant between each use; at a minimum, there should be daily cleaning of recess equipment. How long the virus associated with COVID-19 lasts on schoolyard-specific surfaces is unknown, but a cautious rule-of-thumb is up to 72 h on hard, shiny, or plastic surfaces (e.g., fixed equipment, swings) and up to 24 h on more porous surfaces (e.g., fabric) (15). Water fountains may be turned off and replaced with a safer alternative, such as provision of water bottles for each child.
Teachers, and children, if possible, should wear a face mask. If children cannot wear a face mask the entire recess period, they may be able to wear it during high-risk times (e.g., transition to and from recess) and/or in higher-risk areas (e.g., the sandbox). Although teachers may not always be able to be present, increased supervision by staff could reduce the number of children touching their face or mouth, particularly during high-risk times (e.g., start/end of recess) and/or higher-risk locations (e.g., enclosed or small, hard-to-see places on fixed equipment, in the sandbox, or anywhere with high child density). If a staff member witnesses high-risk behavior, children could be educated to correct the behavior. When possible, the same children should be monitored by the same staff to limit the number of contacts of individuals. Although teachers may need to arrange physical activity or discipline a child, this should be done while maintaining physical distance between teachers and children of at least 1–2 m. Teachers should also maintain physical distance from each other. Risk of transmission during the start/end of recess can be mitigated by teachers and children wearing masks, allowing for additional transition time, by staggering entry/exit times, and/or designating clear entrance and exit paths inside and outside of the school.
As each school’s resources and needs are different, there is no one best strategy for reducing risk during recess. Instead, several specific strategies have been suggested that schools may be able to implement, potentially in combination (Table 1). Strategies may be time based (stagger recess times), location based (e.g., separate schoolyard area for each class), or activity-type based (e.g., limiting access to portable equipment). Strategies, descriptions, rationale behind them, and considerations for these strategies are outlined in Table 1. We briefly discuss how children’s ability to attain the five core benefits of outdoor recess may be affected by these strategies.
- Participation in physical activity. Some strategies may influence children’s ability to be physically active and obtain the associated benefits, such as for muscle and bone health. For example, research has shown that smaller schoolyard size (16), greater child density (17), and smaller group sizes (18) all inhibit physical activity participation. Conversely, fixed equipment, open or grassy, or blacktop locations facilitate physical activity (19), as does provision of portable or game equipment (20) or structured activities or zones (21,22). Thus, strategies such as delegating an area of the schoolyard for each class, limiting access to fixed or portable equipment, or encouraging individual instead of group play may negatively affect physical activity participation. In contrast, inclusion of structured activities or zones may be a way to mitigate reduced physical activity levels that are a consequence of other strategies.
- Development of social skills. Recess is a key opportunity for children to interact with and make friends, learn how to share and negotiate, and develop social skills, such as making and following rules (10). Playing with other children also drives creative and game play, which affect school achievement (23). The strategy of encouraging individual play is not ideal as it would not allow for this behavior. In addition, care should be taken when limiting where children are allowed to play, as areas of the schoolyard afford different types of interactions. For example, if spaces where children tend to participate in rule-based games (e.g., open fields, four square courts) are off-limits, other ways of encouraging this type of play should be considered (e.g., prompting by teachers).
- Participation in a variety of activities. The schoolyard affords a variety of experiences, be they visual, sensory, social, or physical, that allow children to practice and develop a variety of skills. For example, some play areas afford pretend play, whereas others afford practicing ball/object skills or sensory experiences. Keeping classes or children in separate areas of the schoolyard or limiting access to some types of equipment will influence the behaviors in which children can engage. It is important to keep in mind that children also assign meaning to particular locations and activities that adults may not anticipate (24). Thus, school staff may not be able to understand or replace all of the activities that children miss if they are not allowed in a particular area of the schoolyard or to participate in a certain type of activity.
- Autonomy. Unstructured play allows children to recognize and manage risks and make their own calculated decisions (25). Highly structured (prescriptive) activities, deciding on a predetermined schoolyard path for children to follow, separating classes by area of the schoolyard, or limiting some types of equipment may not facilitate children’s autonomy. When providing structured activities, children should be allowed to make a choice or “opt out” and participate in another type of play when possible. Schools may encourage teachers and/or parents to facilitate autonomous physical activity during other parts of the day or consider how some structured activities can be modified to allow for some autonomy (26).
- Mental health and cognitive benefits. Exposure to natural or green areas of the schoolyard is restorative (27), which should be considered for strategies that limit children to one area of the schoolyard. In addition, recess should offer children a respite from adults’ expectations, and breaking up the school day with unstructured free-play, specifically, has a positive influence on attention to tasks in the classroom (23). Thus, provision of highly structured activities (i.e., more similar to physical education or classroom instruction) would not allow for the restorative benefits of free-play recess. Providing children with additional breaks in the classroom and/or adding interaction with natural materials into lesson plans are two examples of ways to mitigate the effect of using these strategies on children’s recess experience
Combinations of the approaches outlined in Table 1 may be used, but overall, school staff should consider the effect of these choices on children’s ability to obtain the benefits of recess. If, for example, autonomy is limited by the approaches chosen to mitigate schoolyard transmission, attempts should be made to provide more autonomy during other portions of the school day. Resources may also be provided to parents so they can facilitate these behaviors at home (e.g., promoting free-play after school).
Finally, there are logistical concerns to consider, including staff burden, availability and cost of resources (e.g., water for hand washing), and required cleaning frequency. For example, allowing children to choose where they play each day (shifts) may encourage autonomy, but may also burden staff. Similarly, although providing each class or child his/her own equipment may mitigate transmission risk, it may also be cost prohibitive. Each school will need to weigh the benefits and detriments of various approaches to addressing logistical concerns, because that will depend on factors such as personnel and economic status. Although we recognize that logistics are important, the purpose of this article is to highlight the concerns from a physical activity perspective.
School administrators, faculty, and staff will be faced with myriad problems, concerns, and issues upon reopening schools. Opportunity to engage in play is recognized as a fundamental right of children (28), and as such, physical activity opportunities must be considered in school reopening plans. Recess confers a plethora of benefits, ranging from academic to physical and mental health outcomes. It is likely that school personnel will need to balance trade-offs between logistical issues and offering the best possible physical activity experiences. It is our hope that public health, exercise professionals, and school officials can contemplate the points highlighted in this commentary while working together to maximize the benefits of recess.
The authors report no conflicts of interest and no source of funding. The results of the present study do not constitute an endorsement by the American College of Sports Medicine.
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