Joy Kastanias wants to be clear: Her daughter is getting recess at school daily, but in the Jupiter mom’s circle of friends, the girl seems to be the exception.
So many people told the parent activist, “I don’t know why my kid isn’t getting recess,” that Kastanias started asking around. Eventually, she found herself seated before the Palm Beach County School Board armed with a fistful of woe and advocating for a law to do what many teachers can’t – find time for children to play.
It shouldn’t be so hard, Kastanias argued. The district’s own wellness policy “encourages” daily recess in the lower grades.
Yet it has become urgent enough that like-minded parents have managed to forward a bill during this legislative session that would demand 20 minutes of recess daily for every elementary student in Florida.
While the bill has been embraced by the Florida House, it has stalled without hearing in the Senate – prompting a blistering rebuke from the self-proclaimed recess moms who see the playground as one of the few refuges from a test-driven classroom.
The bill may be all but dead, but the issue is not.
Not with the stories like the ones Kastanias shared from parents who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of teacher reprisals against their children:
- “My daughter, who was eventually diagnosed with ADHD, was often punished and lost her recess ‘privileges’ in first grade.” After mother and administrators conferred, the girl’s privileges were restored and her behavior improved. “Sadly, it took months and (an educational plan to address a student’s disability) to get the teacher to understand the benefits of play and activity for a child.”
- And, “My first grader and his classmates at Lighthouse are frequently denied recess as punishment for things kids do naturally like making noise or playfully kicking tables while sitting. Also, if one kid acts out, all the kids lose their recess time.”
- Also, “My child attends Limestone Creek Elementary. On days when they have PE, they don’t get recess. My child has become disappointed that he has PE. Another child receives reading intervention during his recess. While the family is appreciative of the added help, they wish there was another solution… “
Limestone Creek principal Maria Lloyd, who was assigned to the school in January , said she’s been on the hunt for more playground time ever since she arrived on the Jupiter campus.
“I had heard coming in that some schools, because of pressure to be on grade level, were robbing children of their recess or PE time,” Lloyd said. “My AP said he’s been at a school where there was no recess.”
PE, or physical education, and recess are not one and the same.
PE is already required by state law – elementary students must get 150 minutes of it a week. This is structured activity such as sports. It cannot be taken away as punishment. And free time on a playground, or getting students out of their desks for jumping jacks doesn’t count. (Middle schoolers must get one period per day for one semester each year.)
Recess is about unstructured time outside. Socialize. Investigate. Play. Meditate.
“How many times do we as adults find ourselves deeply immersed in a task, physical or mental – but particularly mental, and you feel you aren’t getting any traction? You get up, take a walk, get a glass of water or something and, bingo, the solution appears to you?” said Florida Sen. Alan Hays, who sponsored the bill to put those moments back in the school day.
The battle to reclaim school playgrounds predates Hays’ bill. For years, the nation’s experts in child health have advocated for recess.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend children get 20 minutes a day – a third of the way toward meeting a goal of 60 minutes of physical activity daily. Getting out and playing tackles the problem of childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes. The CDC also points to eight studies finding that recess has a positive effect on academics – from better classroom behavior to improved concentration.
“Frankly, I’d prefer the bill not even be needed. It’d be my wish every school board direct their principals to make sure students get what’s in this bill,” Hays said.
Legislating recess is rare. In 2012, the CDC reported that only five states required recess and only one of them spelled out that it be at least 20 minutes long. Another eight states recommended daily recess.
But educators say they’ve hit a wall.
“The challenge that we have is time,” said Palm Beach County School District’s Chief Academic Officer Keith Oswald.
Florida requires elementary schools to dedicate 90 minutes a day to reading – more if the school’s students score poorly on statewide exams. The other time isn’t prescribed by law, but typically teachers spend close to an hour on math and also must cover science and social studies. Students and teachers get 20 minutes to half an hour for lunch. Finally, at most schools, arts, music, computer time and PE are part of a rotation – often called “the wheel.”
Principal Lloyd at Limestone Creek confirms that when the wheel turns to PE at her school, the students don’t also have recess – a situation lamented by some students and parents who spoke with The Palm Beach Post.
“If he has PE, he gets kind of bummed out because he knows he won’t get recess that day. He likes to play and socialize with his friends. I think he’s missing that,” said one mom.
“We need a better balance in the day,” Lloyd agreed. But her job is complicated with more than 900 students and only six hours in the Palm Beach County elementary school day. “I don’t think anybody would not support giving children more time.”
What bothers some parents most is when teachers use playtime as a discipline tool.
“We have used it in the past as a reward for kids – you have to earn the privilege,” conceded Kathi Gundlach, president of the county’s teacher union.
The district’s policy does not mince words: “Recess is not viewed as a reward but as a necessary education support component for all children. Therefore, students should not be denied recess so they can complete class work or as a means of punishment.”
But, parents say, not all teachers are following the rules.
Caroline Bennet had her daughter moved from one second grade classroom at Lighthouse Elementary when she says the teacher frequently declared that they had too much work for playtime. But in recent weeks, the girl says her new teacher docks recess minutes for misbehavior and a couple of fidgety boys have scuttled it altogether more than once.
“I’m surprised there’s a battle going on. If the boys are acting out, let them run around. It seems like an obvious thing,” said Bennet.
“If a teacher has denied her class recess, I don’t know about it,” said principal Julie Hopkins at Lighthouse, where more than one parent had made such a complaint to The Post. “Teachers usually go 20 to 30 minutes to recess. It’s part of every class schedule.” But Hopkins also said, “That’s the only kind of consequence a teacher has to give.”
Hopkins said she wishes for a longer day to get more things done.
Testing, and the pressure for students to earn high marks not only for themselves, but for school grades and teacher evaluations, have changed the dynamic in the classroom, Gundlach said.
The teachers at four public Fort Worth schools reported similar concerns before signing on to a pilot project from Texas Christian University which called on them to open the doors to the playground four times a day – twice before lunch and twice after – for 15 minutes each time.
Kinesiology professor Debbie Rhea, who created the program, is studying to see if children are better able to learn and focus after a playground reboot. She came up with the experiment after witnessing the school day in Finland in 2012.
Eagle Mountain Principal Bryan McLain said in an email this week the number of students referred to the office for misbehavior is down and teachers report students are more focused in class. The school plans to expand the program to more grades next year and the district aims to put it in more schools. “I can’t say enough about how pleased we are with the results we are seeing.”