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Restructuring recess

| Thursday, Nov. 13, 2003

Gone are the days when recess meant a half-hour of running aimlessly on an asphalt lot or playing a pick-up game of dodge ball.

Recess today for many schoolchildren is likely to be replete with rules, restricted to a few fleeting minutes, or gone altogether. The reason: concerns about injuries and security and increased academic demands, school officials say.

An estimated 40 percent of U.S. elementary schools have reduced or done away with recess in recent years, according to the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education.

"Fewer and fewer schools are offering recess. Scheduling problems, classroom pressures -- they have a lot that they have to get done now. It just doesn't seem to fit into schedules," said Kathy Sweeney, physical education teacher and recess monitor at Edgewood Primary School in the Woodland Hills School District.

At schools where recess remains a staple, administrators are laying out more restrictions.

During recess, West View Elementary School students are divided between five play areas to limit the number of kids interacting. In the last few years, adult-organized games have been added to channel students' energy, principal Mark Kline said.

"Our recesses improved 100 percent once we added some organization," Kline said. "What I'm seeing is that kids seem to need more organization in their play. When I first started teaching 18 years ago, we just let them out. In order to prevent problems, it's helpful to have some organized activities for the students to participate in if they want to."

Inclusion is the name of the game at Edgewood Primary School.

"Students are directed to include everyone, to play a game that everyone can be part of," Edgewood principal Jean McAteer said. "No rough-housing. No jumping on each other. No football."

Football is one of the first games on the casualty list of recess rules. In some schools, gone, too, are games like softball and dodgeball because they might be dangerous or leave someone out.

Supporters of the trend to regulate recess say it keeps kids in line and ensures everyone has a good time on the playground. Opponents charge too much structure robs kids of important social lessons.

"There's a lot of learning that takes place in recess. It gives a lot of valuable social interaction to learn how to negotiate and problem solve," said Marcia Corr, secretary for the association of early childhood specialists.

In a 1989 survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, 90 percent of the nation's 16,000 school districts reported having recess. For most, recess lasted 15 to 20 minutes once or twice each day.

A decade later, researchers found that more than one-third of schools had modified, deleted or were considering eliminating recess.

Pressure to boost academic performance coupled with mounting concerns over liability prompted schools to change what many children tout as a favorite time of the day.

"There is a liability. Anytime you have a large amount of kids get together, the potential to get hurt is going to be there," Kline said.

Although there are no plans to eliminate recess at West View Elementary School, the national trend has some parents worried.

"I really think it is absolutely necessary to keep recess," said Donna Gelik, 37, of West View. "With our kids eating the wrong thing and childhood obesity, they need to run around. Another reason is the social learning."

Gelik's son, Benjamin, 10, is a fifth-grader at West View Elementary School. Benjamin often spends his free time swapping trading cards with friends.

"They have to learn to think for themselves," Gelik said. "When I was a kid, you went out. Unless you were bleeding, no one paid attention too much. You learned to get along."

At Clara Barton Elementary School in the West Mifflin School District, the half-hour recess is divided between organized games and free play. The first 15 minutes of recess are spent playing kick ball or another organized game. During the remaining time, students can choose what to do, within reason.

"We do have to structure more. Safety is a real issue," said Mary Jane Hudak, Clara Barton principal. "If we hear or notice that someone is angry with someone else, we try to sit down with them and teach them how to resolve things without hitting, punching."

Near the end of the school year, recess tapers off for Clara Barton's fifth-graders.

"One of our roles is to prepare our fifth-graders for middle school, where they don't have recess. The kids may not like it, but they do accept it," Hudak said. "I don't know of any middle school that has recess."

The prevalence of middle schools for fifth- or sixth-grade students means children as young as 10 go without recess.

Steel Valley Middle School sixth- through eighth-graders do not have recess, said district Assistant Superintendent William Kinavey.

Recess continues to be a daily staple for elementary school students, Kinavey said.

"Kids in elementary school need some time to unwind," Kinavey said.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association does not have a recommended policy on recess. It is typically left to administrators to determine when and how students get a break, said Sharon Fissel, association director of policy services.

Sto-Rox Elementary School principal Paul Dinello Jr. closely watches recess from his large office window.

Each grade gets a turn on the playground or in the large front parking lot.

Dinello said he believes the lessons learned there are valuable.

"A good education is a well-rounded education," Dinello said. "It's not just books. It's a combination of many, many things."

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