As schools increase math, reading, recess gets shorter
CAPITAL REGION For many kids, recess is one of the highlights of the school day.
But in recent years, many school districts have cut back on the amount of time children spend outside and have even considered eliminating recess altogether.
“We’re having that discussion right now,” said Patrick Michel, interim superintendent in the Fonda-Fultonville Central School District. Staff cutbacks have made it more difficult to find the personnel to supervise recess, he said. “There’s a need for adults to be out there to ensure the health and safety of the students,” he said.
But for now, Fonda-Fultonville’s elementary school students will continue to go outside for about 25 minutes each day, and Michel said he hopes that doesn’t change.
“Recess is an essential part of the educational experience,” he said. “Your brain needs unstructured time. You need time to daydream, you need time to play. … For the time being, we’re keeping it.”
Nationally, recess has been on the decline.
According to Playworks, a California-based nonprofit organization that advocates for play and physical activity in low-income schools, 40 percent of U.S. schools have reduced or eliminated recess time. On average, kids get 26 minutes of recess per day, including lunchtime.
In the Capital Region, recess has never gone away, although schools have certainly made adjustments.
When principal Maryellen Gillis arrived at Schoharie Elementary eight years ago, students had an hour for lunch and recess. Today, the kindergarten through fifth-graders have a 20-minute recess period before lunch.
“Kids need to get outside,” Gillis said.
A 2008 report by the Center on Education Policy found that since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, a majority of school districts have increased the amount of time spent on reading and math in elementary schools and cut back on recess and other subjects.
“Recess is important, but if the choice is between a recess or a reading class, you’re going to go with the reading class,” Michel said.
Jeffrey Vivenzio, principal of Pleasant Avenue Elementary School in Johnstown, said that there are strict state guidelines for how much instructional time students are supposed to spend on different subjects each day. For instance, kindergarten through third-graders are supposed to receive 90 minutes of English Language Arts and 60 minutes of math instruction, while fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders are supposed to receive 60 minutes of both math and ELA instruction.
Vivenzio said all three of his district’s elementary schools give kids in kindergarten through sixth grade a 40-minute lunch and recess period.
“We do our best to give kids 20 minutes of lunch and 20 minutes of recess,” he said. Some kids take a little longer to eat, and might spend a little bit more time in lunch, he said. “We don’t force them to rush through their food,” he said.
Brian Dineen, principal at Radez Elementary School in the Cobleskill-Richmondville school district, said recess is about a half hour at his school, and that the officials remain committed to giving kids a daily break.
“We’re completely invested in the idea that letting kids get up and run around engages them in the classroom,” he said.
Dineen said that finding time for research isn’t easy, but that it remains a priority.
“We feel like there’s not time for a bunch of things we’d like to get to,” he said.
“It’s tremendously hard to fit in anything beyond teaching reading and math,” she said.
Students at Stillwater Elementary School have a 15-minute recess before lunch, according to principal John Goralski. He said recess used to be longer, and was shortened about eight years ago, because students “needed more contact with teachers.”
“We go outside year round, unless it’s cold or raining, so students can stretch their legs, get the blood flowing,” Goralski said.
In the Scotia-Glenville school district, recess goes through fifth grade and kids spend between 20 and 25 minutes outside, either before lunch or mid-day, depending on their schedules, according to district spokesman Robert Hanlon. Students in the middle school and high school have some free time after lunch, but do not go outside and run around, he said.
In the Schenectady school district, students in the K-6 schools have a 40- to 45-minute lunch, half of which is devoted to recess, according to district spokeswoman Karen Corona. In the K-8 schools, students get 20 minutes for lunch and 20 minutes for recess; during good weather, all students go outdoors, and the younger students are separated from the older students. The seventh- and eighth-graders at Mont Pleasant Middle School receive a 30-minute lunch, but do not get any recess time.
Recess at the three elementary schools in the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake school district varies, but kids generally go outside three times a day: before school after their bus arrives, before or after lunch for a recess that lasts between 15 minutes to a half hour, and for a short snack break in the morning or afternoon.
“We have not cut back on recess due to testing, and we have no intention of doing so,” said Jill Bonacio, principal of Pashley Elementary School. “With all the testing, students need even more time to release their energy.”
According to Christy Multer, a spokeswoman for the district, the elementary schools have added more recess equipment and options for their students. At Charlton Heights Elementary, students have three options: They can play on the school’s “magic maze,” a complex playground with challenging elements such as climbing towers, they can hang out on the back playground playing on their own or in small groups, or they can participate in an organized game, such as kickball.
Research has shown that recess actually helps kids learn.
According to a 2009 study of third-graders conducted by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, children who receive more recess behave better and are likely to learn more. The study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics, suggests that a break of 15 minutes or more may play a role in improving learning, social development and health in elementary school children.
“Recess is a big part of social and emotional learning,” said Cindy Wilson, a spokeswoman for Playworks. “Kids make a lot of friends at recess. What they learn at recess often carries over into the classroom.”
Recess has traditionally been an after-lunch activity, but some local schools have started sending their students out before lunch. Schoharie Elementary started doing this two years ago and has observed a decline in disciplinary issues during lunch.
“The kids are so focused in the morning,” Gillis said. “We do a great deal of instruction, especially with the little ones. When we give them the chance to run around, then they’re able to settle down and eat.”
During the 2011-2012 school year, Pinewood School in the Mohonasen Central School District instituted a new “recess before lunch” program with the goal of increasing nutrition and reducing waste “as children are more ready to eat, and not in a rush to get outside to play,” according to the district. The before-lunch recess aims to improve classroom performance and behavior and cut down on visits to the health office “as students are not physically active on a full stomach.”
In some pockets of the country, it’s possible that recess has started to make a comeback.
Earlier this year the Chicago school district announced that recess would return to its elementary schools after a 30-year absence.
“There’s been an awful lot of focus on recess lately, and we’re happy about it, because kids need recess,” Wilson said. “Parents want their kids to have recess. It’s the one time of the day when kids can be kids. If a child has a good day at recess, they have a good day at school.”
Research has shown that rural schools and more affluent districts are more likely to have recess than urban districts, and that white students are more likely to have recess than black students.