After years of teetering on the brink, recess is making a comeback in public schools as state lawmakers move to reinstate playground time lost in the push for higher test scores.
Last week, Arizona and Virginia approved bipartisan recess bills, following on the heels of Florida in June and Rhode Island in 2016, as pressure builds from parents who argue that all work and no play is hobbling student achievement.
Providing daily recess for elementary-school children “helps them with stress and built-up energy,” said Sylvia Tenney Allen, the bill’s sponsor and chair of the Arizona Senate Education Committee. “Studies prove that children do better when they have a break throughout the day.”
For Christine Davis of Phoenix, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s decision to sign the bill Thursday represented the culmination of an effort that began three years ago when she asked her daughters what they did during recess — and was greeted with blank stares.
“I would ask my kids, ‘Hey, what did you do at recess today? Any tetherball? Any kickball?’ And they’d be like, ‘Well, not really. We only go once, and it’s only for 10 minutes,’ ” Ms. Davis said. “That’s when I went, what? And that’s when I learned also that so many parents and grandparents just have no idea.”
Nine states now require daily recess in elementary schools, said Carly Wright, director of public policy and advocacy for SHAPE America, the Society of Health and Physical Educators, which champions recess and physical education.
Each state bill has its twist. The Arizona measure requires elementary schools to provide two recess periods per day without specifying the length of the break. The Florida and Rhode Island bills require 20 minutes of daily recess.
Objections have centered on the wisdom of allowing state legislators to override the authority of local school boards, as well as concerns about whether more teeter-totter time will result in lower test scores.
“All it does is add an additional mandate to schools that we have to comply with,” Chris Kotterman, a lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, said in testimony against the bill, as reported by The Arizona Republic.
Even local superintendents who want to extend recess may find their hands tied by federal and state mandates on curriculum hours, a dilemma that Arizona and Virginia have addressed by allowing schools to count recess as instructional time.
Virginia moved to expand recess last week when Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, signed a measure authorizing school districts to include “unstructured recreational time” in their “total instruction time or teaching hours.”
During debate on the bill, “There was concern about core subjects, and what it’s taking away from, and are we teaching enough science and history as it is?” said Barbara Larrimore, who leads More Recess for Virginians.
She argued that “this is going to enhance the education process, not take away from it,” because “they’re going to come back refreshed. They’re going to come back with more attention than if they had if they were working straight through.”
Parents for mandatory recess
Schools have seesawed for years between recess and instructional hours under pressure to improve standardized test performance, but playground time took its biggest tumble with the 2001 enactment of No Child Left Behind.
Faced with the prospect of raising scores or losing federal funding, school districts in some cities, including Atlanta, Chicago and Detroit, eliminated recess entirely.
“That’s when it really ramped up. You saw schools all over the country cut to only lunch recess or, in many cases, cut to none,” said Ms. Davis, a lawyer and founder of Arizonans for Recess. “So 2001 is kind of the year we recess advocates look at and say, ‘That’s when it really got dire.’ “
The rules of the game changed in 2015, when Congress shifted more control to the states by replacing No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeeds Act, but many schools “just stuck to the recess cut,” she said.
“That’s why education advocates are increasingly turning to the state legislatures for mandates because we just haven’t been able to make a dent at the local level,” Ms. Davis said. “We go to them and say, ‘Hey, recess is great for kids, the research is very clear, and on top of that, you don’t have to work under that No Child framework anymore.’ And for some reason, they just don’t hear that.”
Parents have also undergone a shift since the days of No Child Left Behind, said Ms. Larrimore.
“What everyone has learned is that social and emotional growth is just as important as the academic growth of children,” Ms. Larrimore said. “We went very ‘tiger mom’ in the 1990s and 2000s, and we saw the problems that were happening with our kids with burnout and stress and anxiety.”
She said she became involved when her cheerful 5-year-old started biting holes in his shirt after starting kindergarten in Prince William County.
“He was experiencing this stress, thinking that ‘I have to be good all the time and sit,’ and that’s what kicked it off for me personally,” Ms. Larrimore said.
Other factors were fears of bullying and liability for playground safety that banned games such as kickball.
“Recess is where bullying happens more often and schools weren’t sure what to do about it,” said Elizabeth Cushing, president of Playworks, a nonprofit that has helped schools in 35 states set up “safe and healthy” playtime through its Recess Lab.
“And they were worried about liability. This is why some schools banned tag and other games,” she said. “That’s why we have so many people coming to Recess Lab for help — because they realize it’s important to make the most of this time in the school day.”
Although the Arizona and Virginia bills sailed through with bipartisan support, it’s been an uphill climb in New Jersey ever since Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, famously vetoed a 2016 bill requiring 20 minutes of daily recess, calling it “stupid.”
New Jersey Parents for Mandatory Recess has fought for this year’s recess bill, but critics have called it another dictate from above for schools already jumping through hoops to “fulfill a variety of education mandates — some more worthwhile than others,” the Courier News said in an editorial.
“Is child obesity a problem in New Jersey? Yes. Will an extra five minutes of recess have any meaningful effect on that? No. And isn’t student achievement also a concern? We hear that a lot from Trenton too. Shouldn’t time for that be an even greater priority?” said the Feb. 7 editorial on MyCentralJersey.com.
In beet-red Arizona, the biggest hurdle was local control. At first, said Ms. Davis, Republican state legislators told her to take up the issue with her school board but then changed their minds after seeing her return repeatedly to the capital empty-handed.
She was able to cite studies suggesting that students perform better when they take recess, as well as data showing rising child obesity and diabetes rates. Police, fire departments and the military have raised concerns about out-of-shape recruits.
What may have clinched it is that baby boomers — who typically enjoyed recess three times a day — still remember their blacktop days fondly.
“There’s just a feel-good thing,” Ms. Davis said. “Most adults remember the good old days of recess.”
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