- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 14, 2004

Most elementary school students look forward to recess simply because it’s fun, but many grown-ups also now appreciate the importance of letting children take a break every now and then.

Stafford County fifth-grader Ann Marie DeSando says playing soccer, walking around the playground and talking to friends gives her a needed break so that she’ll return fresh to her schoolwork.

“I feel like I’m ready for anything that comes my way,” says the 11-year-old, figuring that without her daily recess, “It would be kind of boring, and I would get tired very easily.”

The same goes for Brad Allison, a second-grader at Ferry Farm Elementary School in Fredericksburg, Va., which Ann Marie also attends. “I like that I don’t have to do work,” he says about his “long, long playtime.”

The Stafford County public school system suggests that elementary school teachers take their classes out for 20 to 30 minutes of recess a day and move recess indoors during poor weather conditions. Other area elementary schools have similar policies, which give schoolchildren a daily break to exercise, play and socialize with their friends.”Recess should include some time for unstructured play, where children get to create the games and decide the rules while adults supervise and stand back,” says Alan Simpson, communications director for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, based in the District.

“There are lots of physical benefits, obviously,” he says. “Recess is also an important time for children’s social and emotional development, because play is an opportunity for them to learn how to negotiate with each other and cooperate.”

The typical recess at Ferry Farm Elementary School finds students playing on the ball fields; the blacktop area marked with hopscotch and other games; and the playground equipment, which is slated for replacement this summer for kindergarten through second grade and the following summer for grades three to five. Recess is held in addition to two 45-minute periods of physical education.

“Recess is important so kids get a break from sitting at their desks,” says Ann Lewis, principal of Ferry Farm Elementary School. “They get up and move. They can visit with their friends and have some social time.”

In Virginia, recess is required by the Board of Education, as adopted in 2000, with the specifics left up to individual schools. A year earlier, Hampton, Va., cut recess out of the curriculum, upsetting parents there and leading to the creation of the state regulation, which the Maryland Department of Education does not have.

“It’s fairly clear from anecdotal evidence: A lot of schools are reducing the amount of free time for recess,” says Jonathan Watts Hull, education policy analyst for 16 states for the Southern Legislative Conference of the Council of State Governments, based in Atlanta.

The reduction correlates with the national move to standardize education, but concerns for safety and the fact that bullying and fights can take place may be other reasons, Mr. Hull says.

“It’s very hard to make a cause-and-effect conclusion because there are a whole lot of factors involved,” he says.

An estimated 40 percent of elementary schools have eliminated recess or are in the process of eliminating it, according to the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play, which promotes and protects play as a fundamental right.

“The more focus there is on SOLs [Standards of Learning] and testing, the more important recess becomes,” says Cosby Rogers, professor emerita of human development at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and co-author of “Play in the Lives of Children.” “If you don’t have many playful activities in your curriculum, it’s even more important to have recess.”

Recess provides children with an opportunity for “holistic education” by integrating the physical, social, cognitive and emotional aspects of the self, Mrs. Rogers says. “Physical activity is important for cognitive function and for health and well-being. It’s common knowledge, but we forget that.”

Retaining recess means more visits to the nurse’s and principal’s offices, says Marjorie Myers, principal at Key Elementary School, one of 22 elementary schools in the Arlington Public Schools district. “That’s 20 minutes that could be [used for] academics, but we would lose something if we did that,” she says, adding that with standards and more expectations placed on children, school has become more stressful.

The inclusion of recess, along with a lunch period, frees children from “being told what to do every minute of the day,” she says. “I think that’s important for their development.”

Key Elementary School tacks on recess to the end or beginning of the lunch period, providing students with bags of equipment, including balls and jump ropes, and access to three ball fields, a playground area, a basketball court and a blacktop area with games such as hopscotch.

“I think they make up their own rules,” Ms. Myers says. “That’s OK. That’s what recess should be.”

Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Maryland this year combined 25 minutes of recess with the 25-minute lunch period into a 45-minute lunch-recess break to gain additional academic time, says Catherine Herbert, director of elementary schools. In response to community concern, several of the district’s 77 elementary schools returned to 50 minutes of break.

“We heard loud and clear from the community that children need that unstructured time between their academics,” she says. “They love to see their friends. They love the fresh air. They like to have a choice about what they can do, and recess is one of those few times.”

Ask children to identify their favorite time of day, and “most of them will tell you recess,” Mrs. Herbert says.

“It gives the kids a break from the everyday rigor of the classroom,” says Lou Tiano, supervisor of athletics, health and physical education at Loudoun County Public Schools. “We all take a break from our desks and our jobs. Just like an adult needs a break, the kids do as well.”

At Loudoun County Public Schools, recess is separate from lunch. The district requires 15 minutes of recess per day and allows classes to go outside at the discretion of the teacher or the school, weather permitting.

“The reality is today’s schools allow for frequent breaks,” says Dennis Young, principal at Meadowland Elementary School in Sterling, Va. He’s referring to the trips students take to the computer lab and library and their music, physical education and art classes, which are held in separate classrooms. “If a class has a unique schedule where children are working for a long time, recess always gives them the chance to change gears and rest the brain cells before they get back to work.”

As 11-year-old Meadowland student Joellen Mauch says, school is “fun, but sometimes you want a break.”

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