Research-Tested Benefits of Breaks
Regular breaks throughout the school day—from short brain breaks in the classroom to the longer recess break—are more than just downtime for students. They are an opportunity for them to learn new skills and improve their overall performance. Such breaks help them to be more productive while also providing them with opportunities to develop their creativity and interpersonal skills.
Students, particularly young ones, frequently struggle to maintain their concentration for extended periods. When psychologist Karrie Godwin and her colleagues measured how attentive elementary students were during class in 2016, they discovered that they were distracted for more than a quarter of the time, unable to concentrate on the teacher or the current task. However, shorter lessons were found to be more effective in maintaining student attention: teachers found it more effective to give several 10-minute lessons rather than fewer 30-minute lessons.
There are additional advantages to downtime in addition to increased attention: It lowers stress levels, increases productivity, improves brain function, and provides opportunities for children to learn social skills through interaction with others.
REDUCING STRESS, INCREASING PRODUCTIVITY
Our brains aren’t just resting when we take a break; they’re also hard at work processing memories and assisting us in making sense of what we’ve just experienced, according to recent research. Using an fMRI scanner, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and her colleagues at USC and MIT investigated neural activity during the brain’s “default mode,” which is a state of rest that is typically associated with taking a break or letting our minds wander. Their findings were published in the journal Neuron in 2012. Although the brain is still highly active in this state, the regions that are lit up are quite different from those that are lit up when we are focused on the outside world.
The results of additional studies demonstrated how important this default mode is in the consolidation of memories, the reflection on past experiences, and the planning of the future—in other words, how it helps shape how we make sense of our lives. We need to take breaks to keep our brains healthy, and breaks are important for cognitive abilities such as reading comprehension and divergent thinking (the ability to generate and make sense of novel ideas). According to Immordino-Yang and her colleagues, “rest is neither idleness nor a squandered opportunity for productivity.”
As a result, taking breaks is an essential part of learning. However, the advantages go far beyond the psychological well-being of students and their families. The use of regular breaks throughout the school day, particularly for younger students, can be an effective strategy for reducing disruptive behavior. Studies have found that short physical activity breaks in the classroom can improve students’ behavior by increasing the amount of effort they put into their activities and their ability to stay on task.
Unstructured breaks are beneficial for both students and teachers in terms of stress reduction. Stress, according to the American Psychological Association, can have serious health consequences, increasing a person’s risk of developing serious conditions such as heart disease or depression. In addition to other activities such as exercise and meditation, the American Psychological Association (APA) recommends frequent breaks.
BOOSTING BRAIN FUNCTION
Physical activity breaks, whether they are brief activities in the classroom or during recess, help to promote physical fitness, which in turn helps to improve brain health. The National Academy of Medicine (then known as the Institute of Medicine) published a major report in 2013 on the benefits of physical activity on children’s cognitive development and academic success. The report was the first of its kind.
At the time, fewer than half of students in the United States were getting the recommended 60 minutes of daily exercise recommended by the federal government. The report, which brought together experts from a variety of fields, made the case for why regular exercise should be encouraged in schools: it not only benefits students’ physical health but also improves their cognitive functioning, resulting in improved academic performance.
What are the benefits of exercise for learning? By increasing blood flow and oxygenation to the brain, physical activity helps to strengthen neural connections and stimulate nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, which is a brain region responsible for learning and memory. Consequently, physical activity alters the structure of our brains, providing a variety of benefits such as improved attention and memory, increased brain activity and cognitive function, improved mood and ability to cope with stress, and increased motivation.
For decades, research has demonstrated that physically active children achieve higher levels of academic achievement than their physically inactive peers, both in the short and long term.
DEVELOPING SOCIAL SKILLS
Children benefit from longer breaks, such as recess or playtime, because they have more opportunities to learn important life skills. Children learn how to take turns, resolve conflicts, and solve problems when they play with their peers, according to scientific evidence. Aside from that, they learn how to control their own emotions and behavior, which are essential life skills. The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that removing physical education from schools would be a mistake. Taking away recess to increase academics is counterproductive because it is a “critical and necessary component of a child’s development.”
Unstructured playtime provides children with the opportunity to engage in imaginative and creative play, as well as the opportunity to practice divergent thinking. There is greater freedom to experiment with new ideas without fear of failure or the pressure of grades. Regular exposure to new experiences can also increase cognitive flexibility, which can better prepare them for academic challenges.
INCORPORATING BREAKS IN YOUR CLASSROOM
Taking several breaks throughout the day can help students maintain their concentration:
- If students are becoming rowdy or bored in the classroom, a few minutes of physical activity can help to refocus their attention.
- Brain breaks, which are brief activities that pique students’ interests, can be used to increase their motivation and improve their mood.
- Make time during class for children to express themselves creatively—makerspaces, Genius Hour, and art projects can all help to stimulate their imaginations.
- While taking breaks can help students regain their concentration, switching teaching strategies throughout a lesson is a useful alternative, especially for older students. Incorporate a think-pair-share activity or group work into your lesson plan. You can also give students a low-stakes practice test at the end of the lesson to help them practice what they’ve just learned. These activities can help to break up the monotony of a long lesson and, as a bonus, they can help students’ memory recall information.