Schools rethink recess

    Under the No Child Left Behind federal education law, failing public elementary schools must boost standardized test scores. In response, many schools have traded in recess for more classroom time.

    Under the No Child Left Behind federal education law, failing public elementary schools must boost standardized test scores. In response, many schools have traded in recess for more classroom time. But research shows that children do better socially and academically when they get at least 15 minutes of recess a day. Here’s how one of Pennsylvania’s lowest-performing school districts is rethinking recess.



    The kids at Stetser Elementary in Chester love their playground. They swing across the monkey bars, sway on rocking cars and planes, and zig-zag through the grass playing tag. Here’s 1st grader Justin Atkinson.

    p1020597Atkinson: We get to slide down the sliding board and play and do a lot of stuff. When we go back in, I’m a little bit sad.  But it’s still going to be fun going back inside because we can go the computer lab and stuff. 

    Last year at this time, Stetser didn’t even have a playground. Gregory Thornton runs the Chester Upland School District, where most of the students are poor and black.

    Thornton: When we came to town, there wasn’t a playground to be found. We had eight schools, one with a playground and that playground was probably 25 years old. Within the last 18 months, every single one of my schools has a playground.

    Thornton says kids should get fresh air and play outside, so he’s made lunchtime recess mandatory. Stetser and several other schools had cut out recess in response to dismal standardized test scores. Stetser 3rd grade teacher Georgine Zamonski believes students are doing better since the return of recess.

    Zamonski: After lunch, we have math. And our math scores are on the rise because , I think, these students are more focused because they had that release of energy. Their attention is back on.

    p1020603When Zamonski started teaching in Chester 13 years ago, her students had recess three times a day. Now her students only get recess once a day at lunch for 10 to 15 minutes. But Zamonski doesn’t think that’s enough.

    Zamonski: I like to do a lot of movement when I’m teaching. I think that helps them focus more. I like to let them get up, switch seats, move around. Do that to kind of compensate for the lack of not being able to go out for recess.

    Recent studies have shown that kids benefit physically, socially and academically from a certain amount of recess. Romina Barros is a developmental pediatrician at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She did a study about the connection between recess and classroom behavior on eight and nine year olds.

    Barros: We found that the children who were having recess were rated as behaving better in the classroom by their teachers compared to those kids whose schools didn’t provide recess.

    p1020602Kathy Schultz is a University of Pennsylvania education professor and a Chester-Upland School Board member. She walks the halls with me inside Stetser Elementary, and says the school district faces tremendous pressure to raise test scores. But she thinks the district’s new recess policy enhances creativity in the classroom.

    Schultz: I think that it all comes down to problem solving and interaction. Bill Gates, I bet, had recess. People worry a lot about schools becoming so routinized and focused only on test preparation that we’re preparing good factory workers. But we’re not preparing the kind of people that the United States is known for, which are people who think creatively and understand how to design new things and invent new things and part of that is unstructured play.

    But Schultz and Chester Upland officials say it’s unlikely the kids will get recess multiple times a day anytime soon. They acknowledge much more work in the classroom still needs to be done, especially as the district has failed to meet federal reading and math proficiency levels for the last five years. 

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