Decline in School Recess Continues
Buffalo News – June 27, 2008
By Mark Sommer
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Valerie Wales often has energy to spare at home. That’s because the first-grader doesn’t burn enough of it in school.
“My daughter sometimes gets to the end of the day, and she’s not ready for bed until she wrestles with her dad or gets chased around the house. She hasn’t run out of energy yet,” said Beth Elkins, an Allentown resident whose daughter attends Bennett Park Montessori Center.
“Limited playing time” at school, Elkins said.
It’s a common complaint. Recess — considered unstructured play time, as opposed to physical instruction — is on the wane for large numbers of children, at least compared with when Elkins, 36, was growing up, according to researchers who have studied trends in play.
The decline in school recess slowly began about 30 years ago, researchers say, when one or two 15-or 20- minute recesses plus an hour lunch break were still the norm. And the decline continues to occur despite research showing unstructured play promotes learning while releasing energy and stress and minimizing disruptive behaviors.
A significant factor in more recent years has been an increased emphasis on standardized testing in response to demands for greater academic accountability.
Other factors that have stifled playtime, child play advocates say, include limited budgets for safe playground equipment, concerns about lawsuits from playground injuries and fears of bullying.
The de-emphasis of play disturbs early childhood educators, therapists and classroom teachers who say it’s critical for kids’ cognitive and social development.
“There is pretty clear evidence on the importance of play,” said Timothy Osberg, professor of psychology at Niagara University. “Play is a major mechanism in how we learn social skills and how we develop creativity.”
Osberg said he regrets the decline of unstructured play.
“Kids do have play, but it tends to happen in structured settings with rules to follow,” he said. “It can almost be more work to the child.”
Less time is being allotted for play even as research continues to re-enforce its importance, said Wendy Paterson, chairwoman of the Buffalo State College elementary education and reading department.
“Many of the structures and mandates that govern what goes on in schools are not written by those who know children in school best, and generally those are good teachers,” Paterson said.
The decrease in recess also upsets some parents who know that their restless children, as young as kindergartners, are being confined to classrooms much of the day.
“[The lack of play] is something that weighs on me and most parents I talk to,” said Mary Beth Murray, whose daughters Margaux and Corinne attend Elmwood Village Charter School.
The prevalence of computers and electronic games, coupled with increased fear of strangers and reliance on structured activities also have meant less free play outside of school, child play advocates say. They also point to largely anecdotal evidence that nature experiences are less frequent and practically non-existent for some children, especially those in the inner city.
Some organizations are trying to reverse the tide. The national PTA and the Cartoon Network have launched the “Rescuing Recess” campaign, while the No Child Left Inside Coalition is promoting legislation to require states, including New York, to provide recess on a daily basis.
One of the coalition’s influences is Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature- Deficit Disorder,” which links the lack of exposure to nature and free play with rising rates of attention disorders, depression and obesity.
How great has the gap grown?
“You’ve got a whole school district in Broward County, Florida, that’s started putting up ‘No running’ signs on playgrounds,” Louv said.
Struggling to find time
Recess is not mandated in New York State. Instead, regulations require children in kindergarten through third grade to participate daily in physical instruction and at least three times a week for grades four through six. All must have a minimum of two hours of physical education per week.
A random survey of area schools found some providing limited recess or structured PE classes. It’s not unusual for elementary schoolchildren to have days without either.
Just 10 minutes of recess is allotted at Dodge Elementary School in the Williamsville School District, usually at the end of the pupils’ half-hour lunch break, according to Principal Lynn Fritzinger.
In Lancaster Central Schools, recess decisions are left to individual teachers or on a building basis, according to Sarah Weidler, the district’s director of elementary education.
Sal Noto, director of curriculum, instruction and technology for the Lewiston-Porter Central Schools, said the use of recess is “informal,” rather than spelled out.
Recess poses a particular problem for D’Youville Porter Campus School, since the landlocked campus has no playground.
“We don’t have recess on our schedule where students will go outside and experience activities,” Principal Silvia Baines said.
Academics also help elbow out play time, she and others said.
"The increase time on tasks for reading and mathematics has diminished the time that students can use on recess-type activities," Baines said.
"If they go outside, it would be a walking field trip," she said, or if teachers took students to Columbus Park, which doesn't have a playground.
Baines said pre-K and kindergarten students go to the school gymnasium every day, but first graders and up only go three times a week.
"I'd like my students to smell the fresh air, see the trees, play with friends in a different atmosphere," Baines said. "But this is just not something we have to make available to them."
Planned reconstruction at the school is supposed to include a playground, Baines said.
Play as priority
In contrast, the Aurora Waldorf School, a school with more than 200 students operated by parents and educators in West Falls, considers play the foundation for learning and the outdoors their classroom.
“Children who play engage the world. Children who sit in front of screens are passive learners,” said Kim Phillips, head of the school’s early childhood department.
Phillips described students who enter the school without having had a lot of exposure to unadulterated play:
"They stand and watch because they don't know how to play. After they've done that awhile, their imaginations start to come alive, and their senses become nourished and they begin to engage," Phillips said.
Elkins said her daughter spent a year at Waldorf, and the emphasis on playing in nature really hit home.
"Valerie would come home dirty and wet and happy. It was clear this is what kids need — to muck around outside, in all kinds of weather," Elkins said.
At Pine Hill Primary Center in Cheektowaga, Principal Alison Caputy is a believer in recess.
“You just can’t sit down for the entire day,” she said. “Especially little kids, they need to get some fresh air and then think about reading and writing.”
Pupils at Pine Hill, who usually finish eating lunch in about 10 minutes, use some of their 30-minute lunch period for recess. Lunch monitors give them about 20 minutes and make sure they eat, then the children head outside for 10 or 15 minutes.
“If I tell them, ‘You can’t go out for recess,’ I can hear the whole building go, ‘Oh no,’ ” Caputy said.
West Seneca West Elementary School started recess two years ago, after several teachers instituted it as a pilot program.
“The results were astounding,” Principal Rachel Badger said. “When the children came in for the afternoon, they were more attentive. They were able to get some of the energy out.”
West Elementary is as focused as the next school on academics, but she doesn’t see the 15 to 20 minutes spent in recess as taking away from the academic program.
“I think this is time well spent,” Badger said. “Making that time pays dividends for the rest of the day.”
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