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When School Kids Lose Their Recess Time

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When Donna James' fourth-grade son told her his teacher was taking his recess time away, the Fort Wayne, Indiana, dispatcher assumed this was so he'd have extra time to finish his assignments. "I was OK with it," she says. "Then one day I asked him, 'So what did you get done during recess?' And he said, 'Nothing.'"

Why not? "Because she makes me stand against the wall," he answered. Welcome to the wonderful world of recess withholding.

Most child development experts believe that kids need some unstructured run-around time during the day. The American Academy of Pediatrics has declared that "recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child's development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons." And yet schools aren't just shrinking the number of recess minutes per day in order to shoehorn in more class time and test prep: Many allow teachers to take away recess as a form of punishment.

Long Island's Patchogue-Medford School District is moving in the opposite direction. It has doubled the amount of lunch and recess time its students get from 40 to 80 minutes a day, with felicitous results: lower absenteeism and fewer disciplinary problems. "We would never take away math or reading or social studies," says superintendent Michael Hynes. "So why would we take away recess, where they learn just as much?"

That sounds like heaven to Mark Sullivan, an actor/broadcaster in Westerly, Rhode Island, who still seethes when recalling the time his fifth-grader got in trouble for popping a brown paper bag. At lunch the next day, they boy's punishment was to sit at the same table as the special needs kids and not get up till recess was over. "You don't treat special needs people as the penalty box," says Sullivan.

When I asked on Facebook if parents were seeing recess withheld, the answers cascaded in. "My kid misses recess most days because he has to rewrite his assignments due to poor handwriting." "Used regularly at my boys' elementary school as punishment…for using the restroom during 'non-break' times." "For not turning in a parent signature on a form." "For not filling in her reading log." "For being disruptive in class."

That last reason is particularly ironic, since recess is the best way for high-energy kids to blow off some steam in order to make it through the afternoon.

One teacher chimed in to defend the practice—"We work with kids who are coming to [us] from all sorts of situations. I think a lot of times, these kids need to be held accountable for poor decisions"—but most of the people who responded were parents with horror stories. Christine Davis, an organizer with Arizonans for Recess, forwarded me a front-page story from Phoenix's North Central News showing a gaggle of second graders sitting against posts. A parent snapped the photo "because district leadership was denying that recess was being withheld," she says.

Davis' group tried to get individual school systems to drop the practice, which the state Department of Education had already condemned. But it struggled to achieve buy-in, so the group decided to lobby the state legislature. That body will vote on a recess mandate this spring.

Other recess initiatives are underway across the country. Erin Dougherty was just elected to the Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, school board on a pro-recess ticket. "Tenacity, perseverance, sociability, all those soft skills," she says, are the ones students will need in the uncertain economy ahead. They're also the ones developed during recess.

At the elementary school Shannah Pace's son attended in Plano, Texas, "the list of rules about things they couldn't do at recess was longer than the things they could do," the stay-at-home mom says. "No Red Rover—somebody might get hurt, or their feelings might get hurt. They were not allowed to have balls, jump ropes, any toys. They had this ginormous play structure, but there was no running on the structure, no jumping off it. One person at a time on the slide. They had one lonely little tree on the playground that they chopped down because the kids were trying to climb it."

Then one day her son and his friend were playing "spies." A teacher misinterpreted it as tag—verboten!—and they were made to stand against the wall for the rest of the period.

That's when the Paces decided to homeschool their children. Four years later, when they pass the old elementary during recess, her son says, "Look at those poor kids."