Play harder: can Children's researchers quantify fun?

Is your child expending energy at recess, or hanging around?

What was school recess like when you were a child? Were your break periods 20 minutes of crazed playing, or did you mill around waiting for a bell to ring? If you played organized games, were they heavy in activity or did everyone line up and wait for a turn to kick a ball or shoot a basket?

For many of us, recess was lackadaisical and unstructured—a pleasant reprieve from math and reading—but did little in terms of burning calories or expending energy. But as childhood obesity rates continue to climb, many are calling for increased physical activity at school; recess seems like a logical place to start. In response, researchers from Children’s Hospital Boston’s Clinical Research Program and UMass Amherst are collecting data that could help teachers turn idle recess time into a high octane, fat-burning extravaganza.

By analyzing a group of recess type games for their energy expenditure and inviting kids to rank them in terms of fun, researchers are enlisting children to help them ‘prove’ which games are the healthiest and most fun recess activities. Armed with the study’s findings, teachers can suggest (but not necessarily mandate,) that kids looking to burn more calories at recess play one of the suggested games.

“We don’t really take advantage of recess right now in terms of helping kids keep weight off,” says Stavroula Osganian, MD, ScD, MPH, director of Children’s Clinical Research Program, and senior investigator on the study. “When kids play at recess it’s not always in a way that uses a lot of energy. If they were playing more games with short bouts of high levels of physical activity, they could be expending up to 200 calories a day. That could make a big difference in preventing extra weight gain for many children.”

For instance, kickball is a playground favorite, but so much time is spent in left field or waiting to kick that it hardly qualifies as exercise. On the other hand, running around a track is great way to lose weight, but as any teacher will tell you, there are very few kids who will willingly spend their recess jogging.

To find a happy medium, Osganian and her team studied 30 different recess games and rated them on the energy expenditure they expended and how fun they were perceived by the kids who played them. After analyzing the data, researchers felt they had a far better understanding of which games were both popular and required a decent amount of energy. Information they can then pass to schools which can use the data to try to engage more students in fun activities that maximize the number of calories burnt.

“There’s a big push for more physical activity in schools, but the type of games or activities presented to the children is also important,” says Osganian. “With nutrition and diet we have the ability to be precise in our measures but it’s hard to know how much energy children really expend during play time. What we wanted to know was the precise ‘dose’ of energy expended playing these games.”

Faces were used to help kids measure the games' fun levels

Researchers organized games for children in a recess like setting and monitored their energy expenditure with equipment that read their metabolic levels and oxygen consumption as they played. Once their physical activity levels had been recorded the children ranked how fun the game was using a visual scale based on happy, sad or neutral face cards.

The games that used the most energy and had high fun ratings were “tag” based, had few rules and didn’t require a specific skill set or much strategy.

“Recess is a great time for children to engage in age appropriate, fun games or activities. But given current concerns over childhood obesity, those activities should also promote a significant amount of physical activity,” says Osganian. “As our study demonstrated, it’s possible to do both.”

According to the team’s research, the four most popular games which also required sufficient energy expenditure were:

1) Stop and Go

2) Pirate’s Treasure

3) Dragon’s Tail

4) Capture the Flag

For a complete list of games tested, their rules and information on their equipment needs, please click here: Games. To enlarge graph, roll cursor over and click.

  • Deb Schlegel

    I appreciate this blog article. I think it’s important for parents and teachers who are caring for children and trying to keep them all as healthy and happy as possible, to read this information. Even as a young adult with no children, obesity in kids is a concern for me. I want the future of our country to be fit and healthy and not have lots of children suffering from diabetes or malnutrition. I think it is important for us as adults and for those in care of children, to promote activity and exercise in kids.

  • Robin

    With all due respect to those trying to combat childhood obesity, the last thing children in our schools need is people telling them what to do at recess. In many, perhaps the majority, of schools around the nation (especially as art, music, and PE have been cut back), recess is the few precious moments in the school day when kids can be themselves, be creative, and feel free of pressures.