Julia Steiny: Parents Must Fight for Kids’ Right To Recess

When one parent realized an all-day kindergarten meted out recess like a precious commodity, she took action — and realized she wasn’t alone.


A year ago summer, Megan Rosker was about to put the oldest of her three kids into kindergarten in a public school near Tampa, Florida.  Her family had moved there from New Mexico, where she’d taught kindergarten herself.  As a teacher, she was fine with sending her child off to school.

Julia Steiny

But a friend who had older children already in the school pulled her aside.  Did Rosker know that this all-day kindergarten didn’t have recess?

WHAT?!

Well, not exactly.  As a reward for being good all week, the kids can run around during the last half hour of the last day.

Fat lot of good that does for squirmy little energy dynamos.  Humans of any age are insufferable if they can’t get a break from work.  Might this clueless practice be contributing to Attention Deficit Disorder, now at epidemic proportions?

“Like many parents, I simply didn’t pay that much attention to what was going in schools until my kids got there. I never dreamed that schools had gotten this far off track.  When I was teaching, no one had ever suggested that we do away with recess.”  In New Mexico, her kindergartners got two recesses every day.

Plenty concerned, but confident that reasonable minds could agree, Rosker and her friend spoke to the school’s parent-advisory committee.  “They were nice, but not interested.”

So they poked around to see what the experts say.

In fact, substantial research argues that kids and adults both learn and work better when they get breaks.  Anthony Pellegrini and Catherine Bohn examined various data sources and determined, in “The Role of Recess in Children’s Cognitive Performance and School Adjustment, that “children were more attentive after than before recess.”

Asian schools, whose test scores Americans envy, give their younger kids a 10-minute break after every 40 minutes of instruction.  Older students have 50 minutes of instruction before a break.

Pellegrini and Bohn conclude, “Unstructured breaks from demanding cognitive tasks seem to facilitate school learning, as well as more general social competence and adjustment to school.”

American schools often point to their 25-minute mid-day break and call the latter part of it recess.  But jammed into it are lunch, bathroom, locker, and “transition,” or going to and fro.  Such recesses encourage kids to bolt lunch so they can get out and be on their own.

Rosker and her friend found schools across the nation steadily chipping away at using time for “non-instructional” purposes, eliminating art, music and other fooling around.

Poor kids.

So they went back to the parent-advisory committee, this time armed with “tons of research.”  Rosker says, “Suddenly there was extraordinary animosity.  The teachers felt that with all the testing, they didn’t have time.  The kids lose focus, and they have discipline problems, and they could get hurt.  Parents were scared out of their skin about testing, so they really didn’t want to rock the boat.  No one supported us.  ”

Rosker was incensed.  So she did what she’d never done before, nudge her media-expert husband to take on her issue.  He got their plight covered by papers in St. Petersburg, Orlando, Tampa.  And then wham, the New York Times picked it up.

Rosker had no idea what she’d wandered into.  “Oh, now I get it.  We’re not the only ones dealing with this.  Many parents and advocates feel that this is a very big deal.”

So many people are worried that a group called Peaceful Playgrounds has assembled materials for advocates to use in a movement they call The Right To Recess.

Mind you, the teachers’ issues must be addressed.  Schools’ fear of liability is real.  Americans sue like it was a career option.  Fine, create a liability waiver and let the crazy helicopter parents refuse to sign it.  Allow the other kids to take calculated risks, since that’s the only way to teach adolescents to weigh the consequences of their potentially-foolish actions and curb their own risky behavior.

And yes, left to their own devices, students get into fights with one another, or bully.  So make sure they have close adult guidance that can teach them social skills, including how to deal with social aggression, which is a reality of everyone’s life.

But most worrisome is the way testing and accountability have become a national insanity.  Testing is fine; I love data.  But education bureaucracies seem to have forgotten that those are humans on their assembly lines.  Both frightened teachers and kids are getting their creative life-blood squeezed out of them.

Rosker makes the excellent point that recess and unstructured play provide “a portal into innovation that our current system is not supporting.  Play is the first experience of authoring from my own imagination.  I made this game, story, picture.  We’re not going to create truly creative people who can drive us forward as a culture, you know, like Steve Jobs.  We have a unique culture of innovation.  We should be leading in education, doing a great job with our kids.”

Hear, hear.

Ultimately, the Florida school instituted “brain breaks,” as opposed to recess.  God forbid they appear to be shirking their duty to test prep.

Rosker has since moved to New York City, where she finds the schools to be more “progressive.”  Barring horrible weather, public-school kids go outside for a real recess daily.

Even so, rescuing play-deprived kids has become Rosker’s life mission.  Join her here.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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