(INDYSTAR.com) - Elementary schools in Carmel are rethinking students' limited play time during the school day after mounting research suggests it helps learning.
The academically high-performing district has the shortest recess of the four largest districts in Hamilton County — setting aside only 15 minutes a day.
By comparison, students at Hamilton Southeastern and Noblesville Schools are getting as much as twice the amount of recess time. Both districts report 20 to 30 minutes each day. Westfield Washington's recess is 20 to 25 minutes.
Research suggests recess not only benefits children physically but helps them focus during class and improve grades and test scores. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention review of 50 studies found that recess, movement during lessons and extracurricular actives have a positive association with academics.
In 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a study in support of recess, calling it a "necessary break" from academic rigor. The study found the freedom to explore and socialize helps children be more attentive and productive in the classroom.
"The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development," the study said. "And, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons."
Carmel Clay Schools also has the shortest elementary school day, by five to 10 minutes. Superintendent Nicholas Wahl said the district is not considering lengthening the school day, which is six hours and 25 minutes, to extend recess.
Instead, he said teachers will include more unstructured play time as they see fit within the day. State law requires five hours of instruction per day for first to sixth grades.
"We’ve given teachers — which we should have given them all along — the power to make decisions in real time about what the kids need," Wahl said during the June 26 board meeting.
Wahl said in a later interview that he brought forward the idea of a more holistic approach to teaching children, including an emphasis on social and emotional learning, four years ago. Last year was the first time teachers could decide if students needed a mental break, and so far Wahl said there's only been a positive impact on instruction.
A break could be letting off steam in the gym or heading over to the classroom's "maker's space," where students can participate in a self-lead, hands-on activity. It could also be a quick "brain break," just a couple of minutes of stretching or wiggling in between lessons.
But Wahl said this shouldn't take away from Carmel Clay's well-known emphasis on academics.
"What it does, it allows students to engage in healthy wellness activities, which has a direct correlation with academic success," he said."
When Katie Downing Crain asks her second-grade son what he did that day at Carmel Elementary School, she said she usually hears about lunch and brain breaks.
"I think it's a really great idea. The kids enjoy it," she said. "His teacher has told me it helps him refocus."
She isn't worried about the breaks cutting into his learning time. In fact, Downing Crain thinks it would be ideal for elementary kids to have two short recesses during the day. The physical activity can help keep kids healthy, she said.
Noblesville, Westfield and Hamilton Southeastern said their students also get short brain breaks and add include movement in lessons. None of these districts report any upcoming changes to recess or play time during the school day.
This year a committee of Carmel parents, staff and administrators will evaluate unstructured play while reviewing the district's elementary programming. They'll also consider the ideal school day length.
Wahl thinks the district should continue to expand its unstructured breaks for students but said he'll rely on the committee's recommendations at the end of the year.
Call IndyStar reporter Emma Kate Fittes at (317) 513-7854. Follow her on Twitter: @IndyEmmaKate.