For some youngsters, a 15-minute recess is a chance to practice for a soccer game later that day. But for many others, that time is the...

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For some youngsters, a 15-minute recess is a chance to practice for a soccer game later that day. But for many others, that time is the only physical activity during the day.

In a growing number of elementary schools, those 15 minutes of playtime are threatened. Roughly 40 percent of U.S. school districts either have eliminated recess or are considering eliminating it.

Even more ominous, child-health experts argue, is the trend toward banning run-and-chase games such as tag and kickball. Eliminating games that increase heart rates and improve hand-eye coordination, critics say, will fuel already high childhood-obesity rates.

“Imagine a child’s circulatory system as if it’s a river. Rivers that slow down become stagnant, diseased,” says Rhonda Clements, a former president of the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play. Clements, a professor of education at Manhattanville College in New York, has written or edited nine books on the value of child’s play.

“If we continue to eliminate physically vigorous games that help strengthen children’s circulation, their strength and muscular conditioning, then just like a river, their bodies become susceptible to disease,” she says.

Running at recess was banned last year in Broward County, Fla. In October, officials at an elementary school south of Boston banned tag and touch football. Elementary schools in Cheyenne, Wyo., and Spokane banned tag during recess. And this past summer, Portland public schools eliminated swings from their playgrounds, along with merry-go-rounds, tube slides, track rides, arch climbers and teeter-totters.

Some educators call these extreme reactions to overblown concerns.

“We never even considered getting rid of recess,” says Monica Smith, principal at Sandymount Elementary in Finksburg, Md. “It’s too important. The kids get recharged. They get back into the classrooms ready to learn. I wish we could give them more time. But with all the other subjects we’re mandated to have, all we have left for recess is 15 minutes.”

Public school systems are increasingly afraid of lawsuits from parents of children who get hurt on the playground. That fear of liability and the pressure to prepare students for high-stakes testing have spurred thousands of schools to cut recess and physical education — usually in favor of increasing math and reading instruction.

Critics say that’s unwise on two counts.

“Recess is being cut out so children will have more time to study for the tests, and we know that test-driven instruction doesn’t allow time for creative thinking and learning for children,” says Joe Frost, a retired professor of education at the University of Texas, Austin, and an expert on childhood play. “On top of that, the few schools that continue to keep recess have really dumbed the playground down.”

The most recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 17 percent of children and adolescents are overweight.