Christie commentary: No school recess? … Gimme a break!

I used to love elementary school recess. I mean, who didn’t? … OK, maybe there were a few kids.

But for most of us, that 30-minute break was a very important and integral part of our school day.

It was a time to go outside, play games, talk (even scream) with classmates and just take a break from school work. I know. Kids stuff, right? Well, here are some of the life lessons learned on the playground: rules of competition, diplomacy, negotiation, social networking, and here’s a biggie, just learning to decompress.

That last one is really a lost art these days. Our now regular 10-hour work days are so packed with meetings, etc. — dictated by an ever-present smartphone — that we think taking a 30-minute break is tantamount to a mortal sin … Gasp!

It makes you wonder if we’ve now pushed this attitude off on our kids a little too much. Not the work ethic, mind you. But the never-stopping-to-take-a-break part.

A highly motivated groundswell of Florida “recess moms” seems to think so. For the better part of the past decade, they’ve been fighting to get some form of recess — read that, unstructured free time — back into the elementary school day.

You heard right. There are literally thousands of moms occupying local school district board meetings — like Palm Beach County — and lobbying in Tallahassee to have mandatory recess in elementary school because many of the schools have eliminated recess altogether.

And they’re serious. How serious? Members of the House K-12 Subcommittee on Jan. 26, unanimously approved HB 833, a proposal requiring school districts to provide 100 minutes of recess each week in elementary schools. At that day’s hearing, dozens of parents traveled to Tallahassee to speak in favor of the measure that calls for schools to provide at least 20 minutes of free-play recess per day for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

They found a sympathetic ear in Subcommittee Chairwoman Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach. “This should be handled at the local level, but when it’s not handled at the local level and when we are presented data that indicates we have a problem, I think it is incumbent upon us to take on this issue,” Adkins said, adding that it is unfortunate legislation is needed to assure children have some play time.

After getting approval in its second House stop on Feb. 2, the proposed legislation needs just one more House panel’s approval before going to the full House. Lest you think it has smooth sailing, however, know that no Senate committee has even heard their chamber’s version (SB 1002).

Sen. John Legg, who chairs the bill’s first committee of reference — the Education Pre-K-12 Committee — has yet to schedule a hearing. He’s let recess movement leaders know that the bill isn’t dead yet, but it’s among dozens of others awaiting initial hearings.

In the meantime, Legg has publicly expressed apprehension about the bill. For example, there are already mandates on students’ time — reading and physical education — that districts must adhere to, and pay for because the Legislature doesn’t fully fund them. As a result, even school district officials are pushing back, wary of state lawmakers adding another demand without giving them money to set aside time and staff.

All this current tension over break time came about as the result of a 2007 state law mandating 30 minutes of physical education each day for students in kindergarten through fifth grade — more than four times the amount the average elementary school student received the previous school year. Approved by a health-conscious Gov. Charlie Crist, it was seen as a way to combat childhood obesity.

A noble effort, to be sure, as daily recess for elementary schoolchildren is recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics, among others.

But schools had to get creative, as they also were under the gun of high stakes testing. That meant squeezing in every minute for lessons that could help raise scores on standardized tests.

Something had to give. And for many, that something was 15 to 20 minutes a day for recess. At some schools, recess is considered physical education, even though it can be led by teachers with no P.E. background and kids aren’t required to participate in the games.

That’s not “unstructured free time,” say recess moms. Kids need that time, one Orange County mom said last week on the Tampa Bay Times’ Gradebook blog:

“(W)e demand 20 minutes of that time for a break for our children. Why? … First, it’s research-based — our kids need it. It’s where they cultivate social skills, where they learn to be leaders, where they practice problem-solving skills, where they make friends and build relationships, where they can BE the children that they are. Also, studies show the recess period facilitates academic success by increasing comprehension, focus and retention, reducing discipline issues, and improving tests scores. And one more reason why a break in the day is appropriate: because our children are human beings.”

That’s why it’s really hard to find anyone openly opposed to recess itself. Again, school districts are more opposed to yet another unfunded mandate from the Legislature.

But Orlando Republican state Rep. Rene Plascencia, one of the House bills’s sponsors, told the Miami Herald that districts have set too high a priority on standardized testing, and now it’s back-firing.

“They’re going too far in the opposite direction; it’s almost a knee-jerk reaction,” he said. “The lack of recess in some of our schools is an overreaction and it’s counter-productive.”

State Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, counters that state lawmakers also bear some responsibility for districts’ reluctance to allot time for recess.

“We mandate a lot of things that need to be taught and increasingly that list is longer and longer,” he said. “That mandate is part of what’s driving recess out of our schools. … We have to let our kids be kids. We have to let them have the chance at a mental break.”

You know, now that I think about it, maybe our elementary schoolkids aren’t the only ones who need mandatory recess.

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