Ask a 'sotan: How much playtime do young kids need?

When playing 3-on-3 Kickball at O.H. Anderson Elementary Schoolin Mahtomedi, Minn., Joey Ciuk, center with ball, and teammates throw the ball to each other three times before trying to get the runner in background.
Jean Pieri | Pioneer Press via Associated Press

Ask a 'sotan is an occasional series exploring the questions from curious Minnesotans about our state. Have a question about life in Minnesota? Ask it here.

MPR News listener Beth Motz of Minneapolis has a daughter who is a first-grader at Northrop Urban Environmental Learning Center.

Her daughter gets a half hour of recess each day and one day of gym class each week. As the school year progresses, Motz has been asking herself whether that’s a healthy amount of playtime for a young student.

Motz said those questions seem to come up a lot soon after her daughter comes home.

“She can’t seem to control her body after being tied up all day. So there’s 20 minutes of frantic movement after getting off the bus,” Motz said.

That whirlwind of body movement can be especially hard to contain when most of her daughter’s school day is wrapped up in daylight hours, she said. And with winter coming on strong, getting outside time feels like even more of a challenge.

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So through our Raising Kids in MN Facebook page, Beth wanted to know “how can we expect our kids to learn fully when they’re only getting 30, maybe 45 minutes, to actually move their body?”

Don’t count the minutes

We posed Motz’s question to Angela Clair, who is the assistant director at the Wilder Child Development Center in St. Paul.

Clair said it’s good to ask whether young students are getting the right amount of balance between playtime and classroom learning.

“Physical activity is really important for children, especially young children,” Clair said. “One, so they can learn how to take care of their body in healthy ways, but also to help their academic performance and social skills.”

Clair said while 30 to 45 minutes can be helpful, parents and educators shouldn’t be focusing too much on the time.

She said providing the right environment for productive playtime is the best way to approach the question. Clair recommends allowing as much “open play” as possible.

“Open play is really important for children’s social skills as well, so they they can use their skills of planning and activity, and playing with their peers, which gives them future skills as an adult to be able to plan and execute,” Clair said.

If it’s too dark at the end of a school day to take your child to a park, experts like Clair recommend large indoor playrooms that can be found in most communities across the Twin Cities metro area.

But don’t completely ignore the minutes

Others say trying to stick to a longer time block is crucial in establishing playtime patterns. This recommendation, published in Edutopia in 2016, is from Pediatric Occupational Therapist Angela Hanscom.

Recess sessions that last at least an hour have the potential to foster creative play. Many early childhood centers stress the importance of large blocks of time (45-60 minutes). Observations through our summer camp program consistently demonstrate that it takes an average of 45 minutes of free play before children dive deep into more complex and evolved play schemes. It takes time for children to figure out who they're going to play with, what they're going to play, what everyone's role will be, and finally to execute their plan. If recess lasts only 15-20 minutes, the children are just figuring out who they'll play with and what they'll do before the bell rings and recess is over. Many times, this allows for few (if any) imaginative play opportunities.

The Minnesota factor

For kids raised in Minnesota, they can certainly relate to this scenario: They have some time to play, but the weather is way too cold!

The Wilder Center’s Angela Clair said on those days, even a little outside time is beneficial. She said parents and schools should avoid the temptation to try and shield the kids from the weather and make the best of things indoors.

Playing in the snow
Chelsea Gerth, left, 9, and Angel Martinez Carbaja, 10, race to grab snow from a picnic table during a snowball fight in the fresh snow, Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, in Winona, Minn.
AP Photo/Winona Daily News, Joe Ahlquist

“Whether that’s going outside for a quick walk to go look for leaves, to make footprints in the snow, just some real quick activities that give them that fresh air and that opportunity to move their bodies.”

Clair says even just a little bit of quality outdoor playtime can give kids the ability to come back in and re-focus — no matter the season.

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