More recess time for elementary school students is on the way in Northern Virginia. (Juana Arias for The Washington Post)

Gov. Ralph Northam popped up at Washington Redskins training camp this week to give a plug for more elementary school recess, something coming to several Northern Virginia school systems this fall under a new state law.

Local school boards may devote up to 15 percent of state-mandated instructional time to recess under a law that took effect July 1, and the state Department of Education must count those hours toward instructional time.

Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties have opted to mandate at least 30 minutes of recess, which the law defines as “unstructured recreational time that is intended to develop teamwork, social skills, and overall physical fitness.” In Loudoun, kindergarten students must get at least 40 minutes. In some schools, the increased time will double students’ daily unstructured play.

Experts say recess helps children focus in the classroom and provides valuable social and emotional learning. But standardized testing and other pressures have eaten away at time set aside for recess, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends children and adolescents get at least one hour of physical activity each day.

“When we were growing up, we liked recess. That was when we went out, had some exercise, learned to get along with our peers,” said Northam (D), a pediatric neurologist who has pushed for years to expand opportunities for exercise during the school day. “And so with all the pressures of the SOLs [standardized tests] and all the AP courses, it’s just good to remember that we still need to let kids be kids.”


State Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax) sponsored the bill to count recess as instructional time. (Steve Helber/AP)

The recess legislation was sponsored by Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax) and Del. Karrie Delaney (D-Fairfax). Petersen, among the Redskins’ most prominent boosters in the General Assembly, arranged for the Washington Redskins Charitable Foundation to promote the new law at the camp on Tuesday. The team had not advocated for the law , but Petersen said it dovetails nicely with “Play 60,” an NFL initiative encouraging children to get 60 minutes of daily exercise.

“It just gives principals and teachers the freedom to let the kids run around outside and not worry about, ‘Well, they’re not on the clock and they’re not spending X amount of hours on reading and writing,’ ” Petersen said. “I don’t think it compromises the academic product. I think what it does is get kids active. And I’ve got four kids, so, you know, I’m in the system.”

Parents in Northern Virginia and throughout the state lobbied local and state officials for more than a year to allow more recess. “It was just pure will and power of parents,” said Prince William County parent Barbara Larrimore. She said the 15-minute recess that her 9-year-old son received in the past at Lake Ridge Elementary School wasn’t enough, and he was penalized for moving and jumping around in class.

Prince William schools spokeswoman Diana Gulotta said the school system recognizes “the benefits of exercise and unstructured activity for student learning, health and well-being. This new law means we’re free to build those benefits into the daily instructional time.”

Ian Serotkin, a Loudoun County parent, said his son, a rising second-grader, would return home from school and “do flips on the couch for an hour as soon as he set his backpack down” because he wasn’t given enough time for recess.

“Unstructured play is the way a young person processes the world,” said Serotkin, adding that parents will next lobby to expand time for exercise in middle school.

A state law taking effect in the coming school year requires some combination of physical activity — gym classes, extracurricular activities, recess or other programs — be made available for a minimum of 100 minutes a week in elementary schools and 150 minutes a week for middle and high schools.

Northam’s appearance at Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center to promote the new law took place at a moment of strained relations between the team and the state capital, which has largely soured on its 2012 deal to host the annual three-week summer workout.

Richmond officials say spending by tourists who come to watch practices does not offset the financial burden of hosting the camp, including $750,000 a year to pay off the $11 million facility it built for the team in 2013. The city also pays the team $500,000 a year to hold practices there. The eight-year deal expires in 2020.

The Redskins maintain that the camp benefits Richmond when taxes and charitable contributions are factored in.

Northam said little when asked about state efforts to land a new Redskins stadium, a billion-dollar-plus project expected to open by 2027, when the team’s lease for FedEx Field, in Landover, Md., expires.

“They’ve got to make a decision: Do they want to be back in Washington, D.C.; Maryland; or Virginia?” Northam said before his spokeswoman steered the questions back to recess.