On June 12th, 2018 we learned about

Students do better in school when they get frequent breaks from extended instruction

One of the best ways to help kids get more out of their time in the classroom is to spend less of that time teaching. A series of 45-minute lessons broken up by 15-minute recesses seems to have a great effect students’ concentration, enabling greater student engagement for each segment of the day. At first glance, it may sound like a ridiculous amount of time spent out on the playground, but schools in Finland, controlled studies and pilot programs in the United State all suggest that expecting kids to stay focused for hours at a time may not be worth the trouble.

Giving brains a break

In Finland, elementary students are given 15 minutes after each 45-minute lesson to head outside and take whatever kind of break they need. When the students return to the classroom, they’re generally ready to take on the next lesson without much hesitation or time spent getting everyone back on track. Because these recesses are outdoors in rain or shine, it was originally assumed that the physical activity involved was the secret to student’s concentration- that they were essentially getting their wiggles out before taking on a new task. However, experiments in classrooms in the United States found that physical exertion might not be necessary, as even breaks inside the classroom made a difference in student performance.

The key mechanic seems to be more closely tied to how our brains learn and retain new information. If running around a playground isn’t strictly necessary, it seems that simply taking a break from learning is. Various durations of lesson-time have been tested, and 45 minutes seems to be the most students can handle before their brains are essentially full. By having a short time for less-structured thought, students seem to be able to process and remember new information more easily. This mirrors the benefits of taking a nap or getting a good night’s sleep to better retain information.

Aerobics for academics

This isn’t to say that kids don’t benefit from moving around during their breaks. A separate study has found that kids with better physical fitness had more gray matter in their brains. What’s more, this increased brain volume correlated with better academic performance in school, particularly with language tasks. In particular, cortical and sub-cortical regions of the brain were larger in kids with better aerobic and motor function, although it’s not clear what mechanism is driving this boost.

In an era when American education is very concerned with test scores, rigor and notions of personal “grit,” giving kids a recess every 45 minutes may seem like a step in the wrong direction (if you choose to ignore the improved scores and behavior.) However, it may be that elementary schools adopting this schedule are simply falling in line with the adult world. Meetings, college lectures and even television shows are mostly expected to require around an hour of concentration, so really we just need to let our younger kids sync up with the demanding schedules adults make for themselves.


My third-grader asked: How long is a school day in Finland? Do they go to school all year?

While it might be intuitive for Finnish kids to make up their “lost” break time in other ways throughout the year, they don’t seem to worry about it. Schools generally start between 8:00 and 9:00 am, getting out between 1:00 to 2:00 pm. Finns also get summer and Christmas holidays, going to school around the same number of days as many American schools.  The important twist is that this schedule with only 25 hours of instruction a week seems to work really well, as Finish schools are considered to be some of the best in the world.

Source: How Kids Learn Better By Taking Frequent Breaks Throughout The Day by Timothy D. Walker, Mind/Shift