Some kids in New Haven get recess. Some kids don’t. After parents complained, the school system vowed to fix that.
The school district is putting together a new recess policy after parents made several objections about inconsistent access to recess among different grade levels, classes and schools.
Conte/West Hills mom Tanhee Cookson Muhammad raised the issue this school year after her son, Enaji, entered the 1st grade. She said in kindergarten, he was used to getting recess every day. When he started first grade, he told his mom he “hated school.”
“He didn’t want to go,” Muhammad recalled. She found out the reason: In 1st grade, he wasn’t always getting recess. Some days, his class would go outside for six minutes at the end of the school day, she said. Sometimes, they wouldn’t go outside at all.
At Conte, Enaji also was forced to stay inside some days when his classmates went outside as a punishment for bad behavior, Muhammad said.
Muhammad (pictured) teamed up with the New Haven Parents activist group and launched a campaign called Recess For All. The group is circulating a petition calling on the school system to create a policy “guaranteeing 20 minutes of recess a day for all children in pre-K-8 public schools.”
So far, over 250 people have signed the petition, both online and in hard copy, according to parent organizer Eliza Halsey.
The effort comes after years of protest from parents and early childhood advocates decrying a loss of recess time. This year’s effort, following on the heels of a new state law, appears to be the most successful in reaching a resolution.
Research shows that children who get daily recess “have higher test scores and less behavioral problems in the classroom,” according to Marcy Guddemi, an early childhood expert who serves as executive director of the Gesell Institute of Child Development on Prospect Hill.
Recess helps kids learn “decision-making, negotiating, risk-taking, problem-solving, flexibility, creativity, empathy, and cooperation,” Guddemi wrote in an email. “I believe it is CHILD ABUSE not to provide children daily real recess! New Haven Public Schools should be ashamed to have taken recess away from children.”
Muhammad said recess also affects her son’s perception of school. Once her son’s teacher pledged to start offering more recess this year, she said, her son announced: “I think I like school.”
Some schools, like Fair Haven School, offer recess on a regular basis. Principal Margaret-Mary Gethings said all of her students get gym class two days a week and recess the other three. On a recent sunny afternoon, her students took turns playing on a $85,000 playscape donated when the St. Francis Home for Children closed.(The pictures in this story are of the kindergarten class.)
At other schools, the amount of recess a kid gets is left up to the principal’s or teacher’s discretion. The Recess For All campaign seeks to bring the school system in compliance with state law, which requires schools to devote at least 20 minutes per day to physical exercise for kids in grades pre-K to 5.
A bill passed in 2012 required 20 minutes per day for “elementary” age kids; state legislators this past legislative session clarified that to mean students in pre-K to 5th grade. Parents in New Haven seek to expand the requirement to 8th grade.
After Muhammad publicly aired concerns at a meeting of the Citywide Parent Leadership Team (CPLT) in February, the school district responded swiftly to the criticism and agreed to address the problem. The schools set up a task force of parents, teachers and administrators who are currently drafting a school recess policy, as well as guidelines for how to implement recess in schools.
Sue Weisselberg, the schools’ wraparound services czar, acknowledged the system has no formal recess policy. Recess varies from school to school. “Most schools at this point have playgrounds and fields” thanks to the city’s $1.5 billion school rebuilding program, she noted, but some—including Strong School—don’t.
Weisselberg acknowledged that the district’s own wellness policy says schools “should not withhold recess for disciplinary reasons.”
“We all agree,” she said. She said the district is committed to creating a policy that would ensure more consistency across schools.
Muhammad, who sits on the task force, shared a draft of the evolving policy with parents at a CPLT meeting Thursday evening at Wilbur Cross High.
She said the task force so far has come up with the following recommendations:
• Principals must offer supervised recess, for at least 20 minutes per day, to kids in grades pre-K to 6.
• Recess must be in addition to gym class, not as a substitute.
• Recess should be outdoors when possible; outdoor play will be permitted regardless of temperature.
• School staff should not take away recess for disciplinary reasons.
The task force called for the policy to be piloted in schools in the fall, then required in the fall of 2014.
Muhammad said her parent group seeks more aggressive changes: Parents would like to see the policy go up to the 8th grade instead of just to 6th grade. She polled the room on the topic.
Who thinks the policy should extend up to grade 8? she asked. Most of the three dozen hands in the room went up.
Just up to grade 6? A few hands rose.
Karl Mini, a Worthington Hooker School dad, offered a third option: Require recess all the way through high school. He got six people to support that idea.
Muhammad also polled the room on whether the new policy should be piloted in the fall or implemented fully. Most people in the room rose their hands for full implementation.
Lisa DeRiu, who teaches social studies at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School, raised her hand to support piloting the plan. She said she fully supports recess, but changing schools’ schedules to accommodate 20 minutes of recess—without extending the school day—will require significant work.
Weisselberg agreed. She said ideally, all schools would assemble a team of school staff to craft a plan to implement the new recess policy. “We’re running out of time for that to happen,” she said.
Muhammad also called for the 20 minutes of physical activity to be “unstructured.”
Giving kids the freedom from a structured classroom environment, which increasingly involves taking tests, is important, she argued. Unstructured play gives kids a much-needed break so they can concentrate better in class, she said.
“Unstructured sustained play for children is absolutely a necessity for the development and health of all children,” Guddemi said. “Recess—not structured play, not Take Ten Calisthenics; but real RECESS, is what is important for developing all kinds of skills that are necessary for success in both academics in school and later in the workforce and as citizens,” she wrote.
The recess task force plans to finalize its recess policy in upcoming months, so schools can begin to implement it in the fall.
Marc Gonzalez (pictured), a 6th-grader at East Rock Community Magnet School, welcomed the effort.
Recess “just helps with the school day,” he said.
“You should get it whether you behave or misbehave,” he argued.
Marc, who’s 12, said he sees kids at his school miss recess for disciplinary reasons. But usually those kids are acting out because they’re too “hyper,” he said. So staying inside just makes it worse.
One friend in particular, he said, tends to be hyper in class. But “whenever he goes out to recess, he comes back really calm. He has manners.”
If you want kids to sit inside and read for 40 minutes, he argued, “recess will help them.”