Schools have until Nov. 1 to rise to a challenge: How to find the space and time, amid a short academic day, to let all kids in grades K to 6 outside for recess.
Principals received that challenge in a new recess plan released by the superintendent’s office. The plan requires schools to start offering 20 minutes of daily recess to all students in grades K to 6. The directive requires schools to come up with plans by Nov. 1, then implement them by Jan. 21.
The proposal comes on the heels of a new state law, passed in 2012 and amended in 2013, that requires schools to devote at least 20 minutes per day to physical exercise for kids in grades pre-K to 5 starting this school year.
Parents launched a grassroots campaign highlighting the new law and calling for schools to address an imbalance in access to recess.
In response to pressure from parents, the school district formed a task force and examined the issue.
“Recess was sporadic throughout the district,” conceded Kim Johnsky, the school system’s K-12 director of instruction. She conducted a survey of schools last year. “Some schools had it,” she said. “Some schools didn’t.”
Last year’s survey revealed that 70 percent of schools offered recess in some grades, but only 20 percent offered recess above the 2nd grade, Johnsky estimated.
Students 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. (Click here to read more about that.)
A visit to Conte/West Hills in Wooster Square last week found pre-K and kindergarten students zipping around in pedal-powered cars, making believe inside a play house, tumbling in the grass and working together on a mini seesaw. Only grades K to 2 have a set time for recess every day, said Principal Dianne Spence. Older kids go outside, too, but not every day, and not on a set schedule.
The district has agreed to go beyond state law and require recess for grades K to 6, not just K to 5. Recess will be “encouraged” but not required for grades 7 and 8.
Spence said her school is working out a plan to extend recess to the higher grades.
“We’re working on it,” she said. “We’re trying to balance academic requirements” with the need to get outside.
Claudette Wilkins-Chambers, the paraprofessional union president, who works as a teacher’s aide at Conte/West Hills, welcomed the effort.
“I think we should’ve been doing it all along,” she said. “It’s important for the development of the children.”
“They don’t get to go outside at home,” she said. “Some of the neighborhoods are just not safe. It’s wonderful that our children get to run and be free for a minute” at recess.
Johnsky said schools face various obstacles to expanding recess: lack of outdoor space, concerns about safety, lack of staff for supervising, inclement weather, and scheduling.
She said one school, Strong School, has no access to an outdoor playscape.
Others, including Lincoln-Bassett and Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy, have concerns about how safe their outdoor spaces are.
Clemente has an inner courtyard for kids in lower grades. The school would like to let older students play in a field behind the school, but there is no lock on the fence, according to Johnsky. She said the school is rush-ordering some signs that will order passersby to stay out of the area.
Finding space for recess in poor weather is difficult, Johnsky said, because most schools’ gyms are occupied throughout the day with phys ed classes.
One answer is to cut into lunch time to add to recess. The state requirement for lunchtime has been shaved from 30 minutes to 20 minutes, Johnsky said. She said that makes sense: “Kids don’t need 30 minutes to eat. They’d rather be outside playing.” Many schools will likely end up offering recess right before or after lunch.
One problem with that plan: who will supervise the kids? Schools are supposed to provide one adult per every 25 kids at recess. But teachers are entitled by contract to a 30-minute lunch period, so they aren’t free to do it then.
Paraprofessionals can do the job, as they were on the playground at Conte/West Hills last week. But teachers’ aides work only in younger grades. Johnsky said schools are recruiting parents to serve as playground monitors.
Another concern, Johnsky said, is a loss of instructional time. “There’s so much to fit in in a six-and-a-half-hour day.”
The schools have announced the following timeline for schools to address the problem: By Oct. 1, each school must form a “recess committee” made up of teachers, staff and parents who will come up with a recess plan. On Oct. 9, the district is inviting those committees to attend a citywide workshop to help them tackle problems. Draft recess implementation plans are due by Nov. 1, after which the district’s central office will help schools that need to make changes. Final plans are due on Jan. 10.
By Jan. 21, all schools will be expected to offer daily recess for all students in grades K to 6.
Schools will also be training staff on another aspect of state law: No child may be denied recess as a disciplinary measure.
The new plan met a warm welcome from Tanhee Cookson Muhammad (pictured), a Conte/West Hills mom who galvanized parents to launch a “Recess For All” campaign. Muhammad started the campaign after her son, Enaji, was being denied recess for poor behavior, and wasn’t getting recess every day. She said the amount of recess depended on the teacher.
Muhammad joined a committee of parents, teachers and district staff that made recommendations to the district on how to proceed.
Muhammad credited the school system with swiftly responding to parents’ concerns.
“I am happy that they’ve been so responsive because they didn’t have to go” that far. “We’ve gone beyond what the law is requiring,” she said.
Muhammad and other parents originally called for recess to extend to grades 7 and 8 as well. She said parents plan to make another push for recess in those grades at a later date.
“The benefits are just so great,” she said. “I think everybody should have it.”