Get Schooled

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Is school recess a privilege students earn or a foundation they need?

Is recess a privilege that can be taken away or a foundation of learning that ought to be protected?

That seems to be the dividing line in the debate over whether Atlanta Public Schools should rescind its policy that allows the break to be withheld for disciplinary or academic reasons. The policy is under review by the APS school board.

The topic has generated many comments on the AJC Get Schooled Facebook page, the majority contending that recess is critical to academic success and the self-regulation of behavior. Commenters cite the research that overwhelmingly shows a link between children's physical activity and improve concentration and focus.

So, why would any educator argue in favor of withholding recess for misbehaving or errant students?

I think the stance comes from the growing concern among teachers that there's little left in their toolboxes to address student misbehavior. I also think teachers believe they are increasingly under a microscope in how and why they discipline kids, and that principals are all too willing to throw them under bus, back it up and trample them again, if parents complain.

Among the comments on the AJC Get Schooled Facebook page reflecting that sentiment: "No accountability for student actions. Why should they do any work or behave? When they know it doesn't matter 'I have no consequences'. They won't be disciplined or fail because the administration/board doesn't want to deal with the problem."

In the 2009 survey "The State of Play" by Gallup for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, nearly two-thirds of principals reported taking away recess as punishment for behavior problems or not finishing work.

Recess -- sometimes now simply called break time -- has been receding since the late 1990s. In a 1998 front-page New York Times story about an Atlanta elementary school built without a playground, then APS superintendent Ben Canada said, “We are intent on improving academic performance. You don’t do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars.”

The parents at the school, Cleveland Avenue Elementary School, protested to Canada, citing the research about the benefits of unstructured play. But he countered that children today, especially those from impoverished backgrounds, are ''crying out for more structure, not less.'' He said the PE classes offered by APS were more valuable as they taught students a skill, such as dance or gymnastics.

''Many parents still don't quite get it,'' Canada told the Times. ''They'll ask, 'So when are we getting a new playground?' And I'll say, 'There's not going to be a new playground.' ''

Retired Georgia State University researcher Olga Jarrett, an expert on the role of play in child development, has been a passionate voice for recess. In a brief on its value, she noted, "Improvements in on-task behavior and attention after breaks strongly suggest recess might improve achievement. At the very least, it suggests that abolishing recess to include more instructional time in the school day might be counter-productive. "

Recess lost more ground after the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which, with a rigid focus on test scores, accelerated the transition to academic kindergartens. Hourlong recess periods, which had been customary, disappeared. Today, elementary schools allot between 10 and 30 minutes, and some have no recess.

There is no federal requirement for recess as it's seen as a state or local matter. Georgia does not insist schools have recess, and a bill to do so failed to pass this year. House Bill 273  would have stipulated daily recess for students in kindergarten through grade 5. The bill had widespread support from parents and teachers, but legislators seemed wary of piling another mandate on schools.

By the way, Cleveland Avenue Elementary School finally got a playground in 2008. The AJC reported  that the school raised about $8,000 for the playground, and Post Properties' charity foundation provided the bulk, about $60,000.

I like to share good writing, and former AJC columnist Michael Skube provided plenty. Here is an excerpt from a column he wrote in 1998 about the lack of a playground at Cleveland Elementary:

Childhood isn't for children anymore. It's for toddlers and preschoolers. Once you reach first grade, school is serious business and you've got to be ''on task.''

I'd hate going to that dreary place and would never send my kids to a school like it. But there are children for whom the public school is the only choice. They are conscripts, like the kids at Cleveland.

They can forget hopscotch. They can forget marbles and jacks and jump rope. They can forget anything not structured, structured, structured. That would include play.

Five-year-old Toya Gray told the Times that she'd be happy just to ''sit on the grass and look for ladybugs.''

A lot of good that's going to do her on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. So we'll just close the doors on childhood at age 6 and get down to life's grim business. Life's about performance, isn't it, not play?

It is in some places, and that's why middle-aged adults are so miserable. They hate their jobs, sometimes hate their lives. They're structured from the time the alarm rings in the morning until the time they fall asleep, their last refuge. They'd play hopscotch, if they could.

Structured lives

I liked what Juanita Gibson, a physical education teacher at Cleveland, told the Times. She'd like to see the schools have recess as well as P.E. ''Years ago, '' she said, ''you'd run home, throw your books down and run outside to play.''

Isn't that the truth? She must have lived in my neighborhood. I had a paper route to finish first, but that's exactly what we did. We played whatever we felt like playing, and in summer we came back out after dinner and caught lightning bugs.

We've structured those things out of children. They don't know how to do anything spontaneously. Instead of play they have ''activities, '' which usually means mom taxiing them to ballet or soccer or baseball practice. And if nothing's scheduled they'll sit passively in front of the television, eyes glazed, or lose themselves in cyberspace.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.