Friday, September 22, 2006

Receding Recess

With pressure to raise test scores on the increase, more schools are cutting recess:
The focus on academics and test scores is yielding a new formula for grade school play breaks: less time and more supervision.

Remember when recess was a welcome release in the school day when kids could bounce like pinballs from swings to slides to games with a big rubber ball? Or maybe a time to steer clear of class bullies?

These days it's a cause célèbre for those who worry that time reserved for letting off steam is losing out to time spent on academics.

"Recess is definitely shorter than we would like it to be," said Nancy Stachel, principal of Como Park Elementary School in St. Paul. [Minnesota]

Her students used to play outside for 30 minutes a day. Now they get a combined lunch and recess period of 15 to 20 minutes inside and 10 to 15 outside.

The pressure to squeeze more academic lessons into the typical curriculum -- and compress nonacademic activities -- led some Minnesota educators to revive a lobbying push last winter for a longer school year. But, Stachel said, "I was thinking I need the school day extended."

A federal survey of 1,198 public elementary schools last year found that 83 to 88 percent provided daily recess. Those providing no recess ranged from 7 percent in first and second grades to 13 percent in sixth grade.

Mary Thissen-Milder, academic-standards specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education, said the state has no recess requirements and that school districts set their own daily schedules. Some schools let teachers insert an occasional recess in their schedule if a class gets too squirrelly.

Dominic Duenas, a fifth-grade teacher at Edward D. Neill Elementary School in Crystal, said he remembers 20- to 30-minute recesses when he was growing up in California. Now he sometimes takes his class outside in good weather when kids' energy levels seem particularly high. On the first day of school this year, he adopted the alter-ego name of "Zoltan," took the kids outdoors, and directed 10 minutes of games and drills to keep them moving and developing "abs of steel." Then it was back to class.

At Jordan Elementary School, a kindergarten-through-fourth grade school south of the Twin Cities, Principal Stacy DeCorsey said she's maintained a single 25-minute recess period each day -- a sharp cut from the three daily play times she remembers as a kid.

But she said her teachers can order 10-minute ad hoc recesses if they see the need. Most of Jordan's elementary teachers also have been trained in a program called SMART, which blends customized physical exercises with academic lessons.

"The reason we went into it was for academic achievement," she said, based on research that suggests certain kinds of physical exertion can stimulate learning.

Academics aren't the only pressure on recess. Health and safety concerns have prompted some schools to assign adults to organize recess by devising games and enforcing rules.

But unstructured playtime is valuable as well, DeCorsey said: "There are some advantages to letting kids make decisions."

In the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school district, a 17-member committee is studying how to change several noncore activities, including recess. Sandi Novak, assistant superintendent, said curriculum change must be done carefully. "We're on overload as it is."

Schools can do their part to increase physical activity, she said, but responsibility should be shared by families and other institutions.

The district's committee findings are expected early next year.

The Education Department's Thissen-Milder said the federal No Child Left Behind law, which aimed to increase academic test scores, had the "unintentional consequence" of cutting time for recess and physical education.

But another federal law, passed in July, could boost recess time, she said, because its goal is to improve student nutrition, increase physical activity and slow a trend toward childhood obesity.

A report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in May said the number of overweight children from ages 6 to 11 has more than tripled in the past 30 years. It noted that 60 minutes of daily physical activity for that age group was recommended in a 2005 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

State Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, a former hockey player, said the obesity numbers for children "are frightening." He said physical education classes often are a target of school boards that face budget cuts while feeling pressure to meet academic standards.

"It's scaring districts to death if they don't pass the tests," he said.

Meanwhile, school fees for sports are rising, providing a disincentive to play.

"We need to do a better job of funding," he said.
According to the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, 100% of the nation's children must pass standardized tests by 2014 or else.

School personnel alone are being held accountable for accomplishing that goal.

I believe that it's highly likely that more schools will be curtailing recess in the years to come.
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