In a recent poll of elementary school principals commissioned by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), a majority of principals reported that recess has a positive impact on student achievement. While there's little doubt that physical activity is good for kids, helps them ???listen better??? and stay more focused in class, etc. (not to mention a hundred other worthwhile reasons for promoting physical activity), the methodology from the RWJF poll was less than satisfying.

As Education Week's Curriculum Matters points out, a principal's self-reported perceptions of student learning might not be convincing, especially compared to more ???concrete??? evidence like test scores (the blog goes on to highlight further studies showing the behavioral/social impacts from recess). RWJF's efforts to curb childhood obesity are certainly commendable. But what principal is going to tell a pollster that recess isn't positive for kids?

I don't doubt the power of play (just poll results), which is why this article from the Wall Street Journal was so satiating. WSJ featured a study from the Wharton School of Business that examined the returns from high school sports participation (especially for girls). The researchers looked at female sports participation before and after Title IX (a policy that improved gender equity in athletics) and thus were fortunate to have a quasi-experimental design on their hands. The study found that:


??????a 10-percent point rise in state-level female sports participation generates a 1 percentage point increase in female college attendance and a 1 to 2 percentage point rise in female labor force participation. Furthermore, greater opportunities to play sports leads to greater female participation in previously male-dominated occupations, particularly in high-skill occupations.???

The benefits that students can accrue from athletics are many (and often intuitive), but, as with most research questions, disentangling a variable from other endogenous factors in order to show true causation is tremendously difficult.(For example, Teach For America has long known that teacher candidates' extra-curricular activities, including athletic accomplishments, tend to correlate with classroom success ??? but this is because self-motivated people can do well in athletics and in their careers, not because one causes the other.)

All of this is to say: kudos to Wharton economist Betsey Stevenson for pulling off a really cool study, and here's to hoping for more research to add clarity and precision to questions about the impact of physical activity for kids (does it lead to positive outcomes beyond social/behavioral? Academic? How much? etc.). ??

Photo courtesy of Sarah Jones at Wikimedia Commons

-Jamie Davies O'Leary

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