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Outdoor activity is not the suspension of learning. It is part of the learning.

importance of playing outdoors

Take It Outside: John Milton and the Necessity of Recess

Did you know that as many as 40% of American elementary schools have eliminated or severely curtailed outdoor recess? The average elementary school student spends about 7 minutes outside during the school day. And the limited time they do spend outside is usually structured to eliminate anything that smacks of competition or exploration.

That might be just fine if education were simply about filling young heads with a prescribed set of facts in preparation for this year’s standardized test, but I would suggest that we should lift our sights a little higher.

John Milton would have agreed. Best known for Paradise Lost, one of the greatest epic poems of all time, Milton also wrote a brief pamphlet on education. In it, he writes, “The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him…”

For Milton, one cannot “know God aright” without seriously engaging His creation first hand. So, after outlining a daily schedule of lessons and studies that would take away the breath of many modern educators, Milton makes this remarkable recommendation, “Therefore about an hour and a half ere they eat at noon should be allowed them for exercise and due rest afterward.” That’s right—90 minutes of recess. And in case that is not enough, he immediately adds, “the time for this may be enlarged at pleasure.” And just to be clear, Milton expected students to sweat during recess, counseling that they should be allowed to “unsweat themselves” while listening to classical music afterwards.

But Milton understood what many administrators today do not. Outdoor activity is not the suspension of learning. It is part of the learning. Vigorous outdoor activity teaches students how to interact with their world and whets their appetite to understand it better. It also makes their indoor studies more effective. One elementary school in Fort Worth, Texas has bucked the trend by allowing recess four times a day, with startling results. Initially skeptical teachers reported, “[Students] listen more attentively, follow directions and try to solve problems on their own instead of coming to the teacher to fix everything. There are fewer discipline issues.”

Milton knew all of this, and we at The Saint Constantine School share his classical view of education. Education is about knowing and imitating the Creator: “in those vernal seasons of the year, when the air is calm and pleasant, it were an injury and sullenness against nature not to go out, and see her riches, and partake in her rejoicing with heaven and earth.”  All students should have the opportunity to spend part of each day soaking up God’s glory in His creation–and even sweating a little bit while doing so.

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