Last year, Allyn taught a second grade class in a high-poverty school in Saint Petersburg, Florida. The school had been in the papers for poor test results, and it was pushing to change by adding extra time for reading instruction.
“We were very strictly monitored how each minute of our day was spent,” said Allyn, who asked me to use only her middle name. “I think we were in the spotlight so much from all the media that they were just super strict about how our day was supposed to go.”
The school gave kids three days of physical education a week, and built five minutes into Allyn’s schedule to do “indoor recess.” But the schedule didn’t include a real recess.
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Allyn said many of the kids had a lot of stress in their lives. Being stuck indoors doing school work with no time for free play was rough.
“I think there was a lot of acting out due to it,” she said. “Kids just shut down.”
Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, recess has been a tricky subject at many schools. In 2008, the Center for Public Education (CPE), an initiative of the National School Boards Association, reported that 20 percent of school districts had reduced the time spent at recess over the previous six years, dropping kids’ time outside by 50 minutes per week on average. Comparable figures aren’t available for 2016, but the trend still shows total recess time ticking down: from 30.2 minutes a day in 2006 to 27 minutes in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The damage was particularly serious at schools serving poor kids. The CPE found that only 3 percent of U.S. elementary schools with moderate poverty rates offered no recess at all, but, at schools where more than three quarters of the kids receive free and reduced lunch, the figure was 18 percent.
For parents and child development experts alike, the value of recess is a no-brainer. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that free play is crucial for children’s physical and social development, and also for their ability to do well in class. A slew of studies going back decades have found that students learn best if they get regular, unstructured breaks.
Dr. Jayme Mathias, a trustee of the Austin, Texas school district, explains that pressure to raise test scores can overrule the research. “We have a culture of high-stakes testing, which, especially for struggling students, means there’s a lot of pressure on students and teachers and administrators to pass high-stakes tests,” she says. “A lot of students, particularly minority and disadvantaged students, were missing out on recess time.”
Up until this year, most elementary schools in the city’s low-income neighborhoods offered little or no recess time, while 80 percent of those in more affluent areas had recess every day, the Austin American Statesman reported.
Ken Zarifis, president of the local teachers’ union, Education Austin, said it’s clear that giving kids a break helps them learn—as well as simply being the decent thing to do. But he said teachers and administrators have been under intense pressure to improve test scores, under threat of having schools closed, and it has warped school cultures.
“We have about 20 years of standardized testing and ‘accountability’ that has made it hard to move away from anything but ‘keep kids in their seat, make them do another worksheet, and that’s going to get your numbers up,’” he said.
Since schools serving lower-income students face many complicated barriers to raising test scores, they tend to be under the most pressure. Some years, Zarifis said, he’s seen high-need Austin schools spending semesters focusing almost exclusively on “high dosage tutoring”—intensive academic help in small-group settings—to pump up their scores.
“It was just appalling,” he said. “It’s unconscionable that we would put seven, eight, nine, and 10-year-olds and stick them in a seat for eight hours.”
But recess advocates in the city have successfully pushed back against those kinds of practices. A new district policy that went into effect in January guarantees students through grade 5 at least 20 minutes of free play each day.
High-stakes testing isn’t the only reason lower-income schools are less likely to have recess. In some cases, schools don’t have appropriate playgrounds or equipment.
“I was always in schools that had no finances for physical education,” said Francesca Zavacky, a former public school teacher who’s now a project director with the physical educators’ group SHAPE America. “I would walk out at recess, and kids would just be milling around, or chasing each other and fighting.”
At that school, Zavacky said, the PTA ended up winning a grant to buy recess equipment.
Many schools could use better funding so they wouldn’t have to depend on parental expertise or internal resources to raise funds—especially since wealthy students are much more likely to have access to both revenue sources. But they also need new policies to make sure kids can get out and use the equipment if they have it. Zavacky said states should require schools to offer daily time for free play, a policy that exists in only 8 of the 50 states now, according to a SHAPE America report. She said it’s also important to stop schools from keeping kids in from recess for academic reasons, or as a punishment, which one study found nearly three-quarters of elementary schools do.
Some states have already made progress. Rhode Island passed a law last summer requiring schools to give kids 20 minutes of recess a day, and Virginia now mandates 100 minutes of physical activity a week, which can include recess.
Other states have been slower to catch up. Advocates in Florida, where Allyn’s school is located, have been pushing for a state recess mandate in that state. The state legislature is now considering the idea.
Allyn left the school this year. She knows it’s supposedly added recess to its schedule, but, at the same time, it’s extended the school day by another hour. That means kids are at school for eight hours with, at best, 20 minutes or so outdoors.
Still, these kinds of school-by-school policy changes are a start. And, regardless of the outcome at the legislative level, Florida’s recess advocates scored a victory in late May, when Marion County’s superintendent decided that the county’s 31 elementary schools will all have daily recess next year.