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Why a Texas professor encourages more play for better learners

If you ask American kids what their favorite subject in school is, their excited reply is often "recess!"

And that isn't a bad thing -- physical activity boosts brain function, improving development, academic performance and creativity in the classroom. So why do students in this country get so little playtime?

Debbie Rhea, associate dean of the Harris College of Nursing and Health Sciences at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, wants recess to be as popular among administrators as students. "Kids are built to move, and the best way to learn is to create an environment where the brain can function at its best," said Rhea.

Rhea worked with the university to create the Liink Project (Let's Inspire Innovation 'N Kids), an innovative school program that is changing conceptions about a traditional classroom's structure and hours in Texas and beyond.

During her 20 years as a physical education teacher and coach in public schools, Rhea watched students become more and more sedentary. "When I started teaching in 1980, physical education was still a daily part of school from kindergarten through high school," said Rhea. In recent years, playtime has fallen, as have academic performance and student health.

The results are troubling. The American Heart Assn. has stated that one in three American children is overweight or obese. And increased testing due to No Child Left Behind standards and other performance benchmarks has increased student stress, decreasing their academic performance, Rhea said.

Looking for examples of how to better marry work and play, Rhea in 2012 traveled to Finland, a country that has developed a unique education model. The country requires 15 minutes of recess for each hour of instruction and has shorter school days. While U.S. students spend seven hours in school each day, said Rhea, Finnish children are there for less than five.

Despite fewer hours of instruction, Finnish schools rank 6th in global school rankings of 76 countries, while U.S. schools rank 26th, according to a May report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based think tank.

"Finland improved test scores by increasing physical activity," Rhea said. "They're able to accomplish more in less time."

Rhea decided to take the Finnish model to Texas schools by creating The Liink Project, launching the pilot program in 2014 at two Dallas-Fort Worth schools in kindergarten and first-grade classrooms.

The Liink Project builds unstructured play breaks into the students' schedule with two 15-minute recesses in the morning and two more in the afternoon. After a few months of the restructured school day, Rhea said the "results were astounding."

"We also found were more coordinated, more agile and had fewer injuries," said Rhea, adding that, overall, "the kids just seemed much more relaxed and focused."

The Liink Project also fosters better behavior using what Rhea calls "positive action curriculum," a 15-minute lesson in character development incorporated into the curriculum three times a week. Teaching students about empathy and trust has shown to decrease bullying and create cooperation, she added.

Each year, Rhea continues to add more grade levels to participating Liink Project schools and to launch the program in new schools. This year, the Liink Project is in six schools in Texas, and over the next four years Rhea plans to roll out the program to more than 20 schools across the state.

While the kids play, Rhea remains focused on the future. "My long-term goal before I retire is that we will be nationwide," she said.

--Jamie Van Bergen for TCU

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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