Schools, Pressed to Achieve, Put the Squeeze on Recess

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.

"There's more pressure than ever on teachers and higher-stakes accountability," Marinoff said, showing off the complicated charts he uses to plan the day for 550 children. Fifth- and sixth-graders get just 15 minutes of recess, and sometimes there's just no time for recess, so the teacher has to edge in a break.

"My goal as a principal is to make sure our children have uninterrupted lesson time," he said.

In the Washington area, private and parochial schools that may have smaller classes, more selective students and fewer state requirements often give an hour or more of total recess time. But many public school districts set low minimum amounts of time for recess. Culpeper County guarantees just 10 minutes. In Fairfax County, some kids get just 10 minutes, though others get 30, said spokeswoman Mary Shaw. Frequently, what children get is simply up to the principal.

That accounts for the variation that exists in Arlington, where recess ranges from 15 minutes to 30 minutes or more. Parents want 30 minutes across the board.

Jordan Selby, a fourth-grader at Arlington Science Focus School, recently wrote a "persuasive paper" about the need for more than 15 minutes of recess. Five kids in her class wrote on that subject.

"I think we should have two 15-minute recesses, like one more during language arts, which is an hour and 45 minutes," she said. "I don't feel as fidgety after recess."

Arlington School Superintendent Robert G. Smith came back with another proposal: one 15-minute recess daily and 15 minutes of what he called "cognitive breaks," which would include "transitions to other rooms, games, standing-in-place . . . and other breaks from the routine."

Parents were dumbfounded. "Many jokes have been made about that one," said Arlington parent Deborah Duffy, a main organizer in the parent revolt.

At a School Board meeting in May, the superintendent's office tried again, suggesting 95 minutes a week for recess, or roughly 19 minutes a day. Assistant Superintendent Mark A. Johnston explained that he's not against recess, but he has to make sure students get the 990 hours of instruction that the state requires.

"The issue is how much time can we give to recess and still meet state instructional requirements," Johnston said. "If we were to go to 30 minutes per day, we would have only 967 hours of instructional time."

At the urging of parents, the superintendent has subsequently proposed a higher recess minimum for kindergartners, which also is to be voted on tonight.

Meanwhile, defending recess is becoming a higher-profile cause. Recess advocacy groups are popping up across the country, organized by parents or teachers. This spring, the Cartoon Network and the National PTA launched a campaign called Rescue Recess, aimed at starting a grass-roots movement.

"We were researching this issue of childhood obesity. One of the things that came out is [many] schools were planning to eliminate or reduce recess or had already done so," said Jim Samples, Cartoon Network's executive vice president. "Can you imagine if adults had to go all day long without taking a break -- a coffee break? It seems like an absolutely basic thing to me that kids need a break during the day."

Olga Jarrett, an early childhood education professor at Georgia State University, said the decline of recess is causing some playground games to die out, including clapping games such as Miss Mary Mac and jump-rope rhymes. "Children do a lot of transmitting of folk culture," Jarrett said. "When kids don't have recess, there's not another place where that tends to occur."

Clapping games aren't part of the plan at some area schools. In the rush to fight obesity and get kids moving, some schools are adding mandatory activities and exercise time during recess, guided by teachers. They say kids aren't as spontaneous as they used to be, perhaps because they spend so much time in front of televisions, computers and video games. So some schools are asking teachers to lead the way three days a week.

"Before we organized guided play, recess was just a free-for-all, with kids never organizing anything much more in-depth than a game of tag," said Steve Geyer, principal of the elementary school in Berryville, Va.

"They wouldn't organize soccer or relay races or any more complicated games. There needs to be a little more leadership involved," Geyer said.

Child psychologists say these programs may come at a cost.

"If it's structured, it's not recess," said Ford, of George Mason University. "It's not producing the same developmental outcomes."

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