2016-04-14 / Around Town

The Fight to Protect Recess

By Olga Enger

The creative playground equipment at Pell Elementary School fosters active engagement for the students during recess. 
(Photo by Jack Kelly) The creative playground equipment at Pell Elementary School fosters active engagement for the students during recess. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Is it all work and no play for America’s youngest students?

Rhode Island advocates and lawmakers have joined a rising number across the country that claim the answer to that question is an unfortunate yes.

“There is a feeling that we need to spend more time in the classroom, particularly in those districts that are struggling on standardized testing,” said Karin Wetherill of the Rhode Island Healthy Schools Coalition (RIHSC). “There is a national trend that districts are cutting back recess. The argument is that having more time to complete academics is beneficial. It absolutely does not. It is totally counterproductive.”

Inspired by the advocacy of two groups, Recess for Rhode Island and Parents Across Rhode Island, legislation (H7644 and S2669) has been introduced that would require schools to provide at least 20 minutes of unstructured free play, and it could not be withheld for punitive reasons.

Each school day requires 5.5 hours of instructional time. Time for free play and recess is open to individual schools. ( 
Photo by Jack Kelly) Each school day requires 5.5 hours of instructional time. Time for free play and recess is open to individual schools. ( Photo by Jack Kelly) “Withholding recess from kids is more prevalent than we thought,” said state Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, who co-sponsored the Senate bill. The House version was sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Fogarty, D-South Kingstown, and was co-sponsored by Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport.

A recent survey conducted by Recess for Rhode Island revealed that 70 percent of elementary school principals indicated recess is denied as a disciplinary strategy and 82 percent reported that kids spend 20 minutes or less in recess each day.

“We try to avoid excluding from recess and will do other supports such as a silent lunch or makeup work during intervention,” said Pell Elementary principal Kimberly Behan, who considers recess breaks essential for learning and development.

Although the majority, or 85 percent, of Rhode Island elementary school principals agree with Behan that recess is critical, recess implementation varies widely across districts and schools.

Statewide, less than half of school districts prohibit withholding recess for disciplinary reasons, according to a policy brief prepared by the nonprofit Kids Count. Nine districts require 20 minutes or more of daily recess, and two districts mandate it be scheduled before lunch.

Pell Elementary in Newport has one scheduled 20-minute recess each day. In Middletown, Aquidneck Elementary students have one 30-minute recess and Forest Avenue Elementary students have a 15-minute morning recess, an hour-long lunchtime recess, and an additional 10-15-minute break for kindergarten and first grade.

In addition to the scheduled recess at Pell, “Teachers are free at any time to bring students out for more activity when they feel it is best for their classes,” said Superintendent Colleen Jermain.

Wetherill commended Jermain’s position.

“Colleen has been a strong supporter of wellness. That’s great to have that statement from a superintendent,” said Wetherill. “She is saying, ‘I trust you to know, as a teacher.’ It takes that kind of leader to communicate the policies and make it a priority.”

The push for change began in 2015, after the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) published proposed revisions to their regulations, requiring 5.5 hours of instructional time per school day. But free play, recess, or lunchtime was not mentioned.

“We just thought it was an oversight,” said Tracy Ramos of Parents Across Rhode Island. To gauge community support for recess, the group created a change.org petition, which has gathered 1,000 signatures to date.

Notwithstanding that DiPalma co-sponsored the recess bill, he does not believe legislation is the ideal solution.

“Legislation isn’t the answer for everything. But it certainty is the answer to make things happen,” he said.

Rhode Island is one of 43 states that do not legislatively mandate recess, according to Kids Count.

After hearing the bill, it was determined RIDE should review their recess language. Recess is currently in RIDE’s Basic Education Program (BEP), but it leaves out details such as duration and rules around withholding recess. “The expectation is that RIDE is going to come forward with a policy. In the absence of that, something needs to be done,” said DiPalma, implying that a legislative solution could be revisited.

Andy Andrade, special assistant to the commissioner for legislative relations, said RIDE is “very supportive” of recess, but the language is intentionally left vague to provide districts flexibility. Andrade said RIDE is reviewing language to add the 20-minute minimum, but they would probably not dictate school policy on whether to withhold recess.

“That’s a local policy. We wouldn’t get into that,” said Andrade. “All sizes do not fit all.”

Suzanne Arena, founder of Decoding Dyslexia Rhode Island, said her daughter has learning disabilities and was denied recess for academic reasons in the Cranston School District.

“I found out she had been losing recess, because she hadn’t been handing in her homework. I was bothered that children with disabilities were taken out of recess. There is no standard; it’s up to a teacher,” said Arena.

Another emerging trend is structured recess, where a trained adult leads activities. Proponents for structured time note that today’s children often require encouragement to participate in physical activities. “With screen time and technology, a lot of kids don’t know how to play anymore,” Wetherill said.

Principal Behan said there are a variety of supports built into the recess at Pell.

“Our behavior support and school psychologist recently supported a group of students who struggled at recess by organizing games and slowly inviting new friends so they could teach the outdoor games,” said Behan.

The principal added that recess is only one piece of the school’s approach to provide their young learners academic breaks, including 100 minutes of physical education a week.

“This quarter our ALL STAR Celebration will be 40 minutes of dance party for every grade,” said Behan. Rebecca Bolan, chair of the Newport School Wellness Subcommittee, added that Newport schools also participate in alternative breaks from instruction, such as mindfulness training.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warns that pulling kids from the playground puts them at risk.

“Safe and well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it,” wrote the AAP Council on School Health in a policy document.

Additionally, studies demonstrate a recess break leads to better concentration once students come back inside, according to the same statement. In Japan, young children have a 10- to 15-minute break each hour, based on data indicating that attention spans wane after around 45 minutes of instruction.

A school in Texas recently made headlines after tripling its recess time, modeling their school day after Finland, where schools are recognized as academically successful. The school, Eagle Mountain Elementary in Fort Worth, now gives kindergarten and first-grade students two 15-minute recess breaks every morning and two 15-minute breaks every afternoon.

“It’s been proven if kids get their wiggles out, they are able to concentrate better. I would like to see more than 20 minutes of recess in our schools,” said Bolan.

Wetherill said these are signs the pendulum is beginning to swing back.

“We are starting to see some changes. I think there is recognition that recess is important,” she said.

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