Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Rallying Around Recess

Last Tuesday evening, an audience of more than 50 people gathered for the second event in the Speaking of Play series – a provocative conversation about the important benefits of recess. Moderated by Museum director Janice O’Donnell, panelists shared stories of their recess struggles and sparked an enthusiastic and passionate audience exchange about joining together as a community to stand up for recess.

The Panelists
Psychologist Lauren Greve (a parent at Providence's Vartan Gregorian Elementary School) noted some of the arguments against recess – that it takes away from valuable instructional time and bullying happens – and cited research that debunks them. Children’s attention to school tasks decreases if they’re deprived of a break, and the benefits of recess on school performance are immediate.  Bullying is low with appropriate adult supervision. Recess time helps kids develop social/emotional skills – better focus, memory, creativity, cooperation, conflict resolution, self discipline, respect for rules, and can decrease aggression.

As an elementary art teacher in Franklin, MA, Alicia Bell loves having regular recess duty. And there’s not a day they haven’t had recess – kids are encouraged to bring boots and snow pants and play outside. But when she realized that recess is not a regular part of her second grade daughter’s day at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School in Providence, she spoke to the teacher, shared concerns with other parents, and began documenting what happened each day. While she’s noticed some changes and more attention to recess, it still sometimes gets taken away from whole classes because of the behavior of a few kids and they don’t always get indoor recess on days they can’t go outside.

URI lecturer Phyllis Penhallow is on the third year of a successful recess crusade in the Chariho district and noted several issues that brought recess to her attention. Outdoor recess was limited by weather at the principal’s discretion and kids watched movies during indoor recess. The school playspace and equipment was inadequate. Waiting for kids to line up quietly cut into their 20 minutes of recess. A core group of parents took up the cause and stirred things up by getting a newspaper reporter to do a story, got articles and research about the importance of play before the school committee, and prepared a presentation and report for the Board of Regents. Among their successes, they’ve strengthened relationships with the principal and superintendent, are helping rewrite the school wellness policy so that recess can’t be withheld, and are part of strategic planning for the district, advocating for physical activity and free unstructured time.

Credit Susan Sancomb
The Conversation

“If the value of recess was recognized, it wouldn’t be taken away.”  – Janice O'Donnell, Museum director

On recess withheld as a punitive measure: What alternatives can teachers, schools and districts use to respond to behavior issues instead of withholding recess entirely from a child – or a whole class? Are there other things that can be taken away? Alicia advocated the model from Franklin, MA: children lose just a minute of recess, though not for a first offense, and it’s effective – it gives them time to reflect and they don’t see the same kids losing recess time repeatedly.

A child psychiatrist shared several thoughts: he sees children deprived of recess because they haven’t finished their work, often due to attention problems and learning disabilities. It’s normal for people to talk, abnormal to stand in quiet lines: “There’s a culture that gets perpetrated – generation to generation – in schools that’s completely alien to what happens outside of school. We need to advocate for rules that are reasonable to the situation but also reasonable to the child.”

On rethinking classroom time: Play has been taken out of kindergarten classrooms and children are expected to sit and listen quietly – “people forget what’s developmentally appropriate for young children,” noted a first grade teacher. Plus many kids are kinesthetic learners who don’t sit well and need movement to be successful. Teachers can incorporate more movement and play in the classroom at all levels.

What Can WE Do?
  • Be prepared, be persistent. In Providence, success has come only from getting in front of the school board with data and following up again and again.
  • Get the word out. Write letters, engage the media.
  • Enlist allies. Get pediatricians and child psychologists/psychiatrists to speak on behalf of recess. A clever suggestion from Dr. Bill Hollinshead, former president of the RI chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics: “In the spirit of guerilla activity, ask your pediatrician to write a [prescription] for recess. ”
  • Build community and a bigger movement. Help schools in other parts of the city or state that might not have resources with advice, templates, research.
  • Plan for play. If involved in planning a school, advocate for the lunch area to be near the play area, so there’s less transition time and standing in lines.
  • Question testing. As parents and a community, we have to question the notion that testing is important and that play isn’t – “we’re in the position of power to shift those norms.”
Download Take a Stand for Recess, a sheet with practical resources and guides plus articles and research that will help make the case for recess. What can and will YOU do?

And join the final conversation in the Speaking of Play seriesPlay and Risk: How Safe is Too Safe? – on Tuesday, May 7 from 7:00 - 8:30 PM at the Providence Athenaeum!

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