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Schools, Pressed to Achieve, Put the Squeeze on Recess

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By Margaret Webb Pressler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 1, 2006

Ask any group of kids what they like best about school and one answer will come up over and over: recess. Who doesn't remember that wonderful moment when you finally got to run out to the playground, carefree, for a pickup game of four square or dodge ball?

But for many kids today, the recess bell comes too late, for too little time, or even not at all. Pressure to raise test scores and adhere to state-mandated academic requirements is squeezing recess out of the school day. In many schools, it's just 10 or 15 minutes, if at all. In some cases, recess has become structured with organized games -- yes, recess is being taught.

Recess time varies across the region, and few school districts have standard policies. At Flint Hill Elementary School in Vienna, it is 15 minutes a day. In the District, officials say schools "aim for" 20 minutes. At Rosemary Hills Primary School in Silver Spring, the kids get half an hour. But at most middle schools, recess has been eliminated.

Parents -- and kids -- are starting to fight back. Recess defense groups have formed nationally. And locally, the fight is underway in Arlington County, where the School Board has twice had to delay voting on its new "wellness program" because parents were so angry that it proposed a standard of only 15 minutes for recess. A revised proposal is to be voted on tonight.

"Recess is too valuable to our students' lives to be the leftover time in the school day," said Diane Schwartz, whose son attends Ashlawn Elementary School. "Our schools need to take the lead."

Academics and psychologists who study childhood development are growing concerned about overly structured, less playful school days, arguing that free play is extremely valuable to kids and their development.

"This is the one time during the day that they have the freedom, or the power, to control what they will be doing in terms of decision-making, in terms of negotiation, in terms of conflict resolution with their peers," said Audrey Skrupskelis, associate professor of early childhood education at the University of South Carolina in Aiken.

Other experts point out that even adults count on breaks during the day to feel refreshed and recharged. "I don't see how people can fail to empathize with that situation," said Martin Ford, a professor of early childhood education at George Mason University.

It's easy to understand why people are incensed -- and torn -- by visiting any elementary school. At Buzz Aldrin Elementary in Reston this week, Liz Yates's first-graders couldn't wait to get outside for recess. Their legs wiggled beneath them as they waited for the bell, and when it came, they flew into a line and filed quickly to the playground. For 20 minutes, the kids moved nonstop, even in the unusual May heat: boys playing soccer, kids playing tag and swinging on the monkey bars, girls playing house under the jungle gym.

Kelsey Watson, a student in Yates's class, zeroed right in on what's good about recess.

"I think it's fun to run around with my friends outside," she said. "Sometimes we bring balls outside and we play soccer, and it shows that we can all share and not argue."

But Buzz Aldrin's 20 minutes of recess is no easy feat to achieve. Principal J. Martin Marinoff said he has so much to cram into the school day that recess is the last thing he schedules.


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