Sunday, September 30, 2012

How Important Is Recess?

students enjoying lunch during recess hour
Students enjoying lunch during recess hour (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Janel N Spencer

What are the keys to improving student success? More technology incorporated into the classroom? Improved STEM education? Better teacher or principal evaluations?

The suggestions and even blame (is it the fault of the parents? the teachers? the students?) rage on.

Now, even recess is up for debate.

Based on a new master schedule released earlier this month, elementary students in Syracuse, NY will no longer have recess.

Aside from a half hour lunch, the schedule outlines every minute of their 6-hour school day for specified instruction:

  • 120 minutes for English language arts
  • 80 minutes for math
  • 45 minutes each for science and social studies
  • 40 minutes for special subjects like art or gym, and
  • 30 minutes for lunch.

This minute-by-minute schedule leaves no time for recess. And although Laura Kelly, the district Chief Academic Officer, says that teachers can decide to insert recess into the allotted schedule, she does not recommend it.

"If they are going to opt to do recess, they are going to be taking time from ELA (English language arts) and math, and that's a choice I hope every teacher considers very carefully," Kelley commented to the Post-Standard.

The new master schedule is meant to help student achievement in Syracuse, which has some of the worst student outcomes in the state. Last year, fewer than 30 percent of their students in grades 3 through 8 met state proficiency standards, only 13 percent of high school students scored at least an 85 on the English Regents exam, and only 51 percent of their students graduated from high school on time.

The new schedule was meant to ensure that teachers at every school spend adequate time on core subjects to meet state requirements, a part of the state's new teacher accountability rules.

According to a 2010 report, up to 40 percent of U.S. school districts have cut back on recess, either reducing it or completing eliminating it, in order to put more focus on the core subjects. One in 5 principals say that they have had to reduce recess based on federal requirements.

"Many schools, actually most of our elementary schools, have not been offering recess for quite some time. They've opted to spend as many minutes as they can on instruction," Kelley explained.

School psychologist of Meachem Elementary in Syracuse, Michael Gilbert, however, disagrees with the new schedule. Meachem's 15-minute recess has now been taken away, and Gilbert sees this as a problem that is also a part of a much larger issue.

Gilbert told the Post-Standard that in the last several years, the push to improve student test scores has eroded students' opportunities for social and emotional learning.

Last week, Meachem re-adjusted its schedule to include recess after there was a public outcry from teachers and parents about the proposed change. During a PTO meeting last Tuesday with a total 100 present including concerned parents and teachers, Meachem Elementary Principal Melissa Evans affirmed that the school would put recess back on the schedule.

Other states are also reevaluating recess: recently, Chicago and Atlanta public schools have been slowly introducing recess back into their schedules. This August year, some Chicago public schools had a scheduled recess for the first time in thirty years.

In May, Illinois passed a state bill mandating at least 20 minutes of daily recess for K-5, with provisions that school boards could extend recess for students in middle school if necessary, and forbidding schools from withholding recess as a disciplinary action.

"Our children deserve a chance to play and relax during the school day. Learning to make friends and use your imagination is every bit as important as learning multiplication and grammar," said Sen. Kimberly Lightford, who introduced the bill.

Studies have show that a small break in the middle of the day can in fact aid learning: the later in the day the break is introduced, the more the students lose their ability to focus. The studies show that physical activity and free time boost academic achievement.

A major report published in the journal Pediatrics in 2009 found that among 11,000 children between ages 8 and 9, those who had more than 15 minutes of recess a day were much better behaved in class than children with shorter breaks or without them.

Another report by a children's advocacy group in 2009 found that poorer districts are among the first to get rid of recess in an attempt to improve student achievement (such as in Syracuse)-nearly half of poor children go all day without recess.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also reported this correlation between poverty and what they call "play deprivation." In Chicago, nearly 100 elementary and middle schools don't have playgrounds at all.

While some school officials may still maintain that allotting 15 or more minutes for recess is just a waste of time, researchers are saying that playing is essential to a child's social, emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being. Other schools are taking this research to heart and trying to incorporate recess into the schedule as an important part of curriculum.

"Monkeying around" just may be more important than it appears.

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