Sixth-graders at Holbrook South School know what it’s like to sit off to the side while classmates run around during recess.
Sometimes they wind up there because their teacher is punishing them for not finishing their homework. No recess — and a zero grade for the incomplete work — feels like they’re being punished twice, several said.
“When a student misses recess,’’ said Armani Teran, 12, “it doesn’t change the fact of whether they’re going to do their homework or not.”
The students’ skepticism about the wisdom of withholding recess because of a missed homework assignment or a behavior issue surfaced during a meeting of the sixth-grade civics club.
And now they’re trying to do something about it.
The club, which has about 50 or 60 members, more than half of the total number of sixth-graders at South School, is working to strengthen the district’s policy on recess as part of a civics project they will present at the State House Friday, June 2.
They have taken surveys of parents, teachers, and students about homework and recess, and presented their findings to the Holbrook School Committee in May . That presentation was well-received by committee members. Chairwoman Beth Tolson said that she supported the students’ findings and would send a letter in support of the project for the State House event. She also indicated the district’s policy prohibiting teachers from taking away recess would be followed.
Committee member Danielle Harer, whose son is in the club, said the district must make sure teachers are aware of the issue. “There should be some protocols they follow,’’ said Harer, “so this stuff doesn’t happen.”
Twelve-year-old Bryan Moss noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 60 minutes of exercise a day or more. He and his peers, he continued, only have physical education one time per week, and a daily 15-minute recess.
“We sit in classes all day,” Moss said in an interview. “We don’t have enough time to socialize and get our energy out.”
The students say they are not opposed to doing homework, but that stigmatizing kids by making them sit off to the side while their classmates play can add a burden on children who are already dealing with a lot at home.
Through the surveys, the club found that students don’t finish their homework for many reasons other than laziness or too many other activities. Some watch younger siblings when their parents work or they have other responsibilities at home. Others have parents who do not speak English well and cannot offer to help them. Still others don’t have a computer connected to the Internet.
Said Teran: “You can really never, how matter how hard you try, know what is going on in someone’s life, and that can affect the way they work in school.”
It turns out that Holbrook Public Schools has a wellness policy that calls for 20 minutes a day of recess for elementary students and says teachers “will not” withhold recess as punishment.
But civics club members said teachers they surveyed said they were not aware of the policy, or felt they had no other option to discipline students who had not done their homework.
“It’s what . . . [teachers] have to say, what you have to negotiate with,” said Mary Clougher, a civics teacher who serves as the club’s faculty adviser. “It’s an easy way out.”
The students’ findings are consistent with other health and education research, experts said.
“The punitive aspect, the ostracizing, singling them out, will not help them do their homework,” said Nancy Hill, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
Hill acknowledges the pressure teachers are under to improve test scores, but said schools often consider play as expendable, rather than an essential part of development.
The Holbrook students want their district to take a firmer position prohibiting the practice of denying recess, and have reached out to the Legislature about making a law to the same effect, as other states have done. They are also proposing a homework resource room where students who need homework help can work with peer volunteers to complete their assignments.
“That’s an awesome civics project for those sixth-graders,” said Jonathan Gay, executive director of Playworks New England, a nonprofit organization that partners with school districts to enhance recess.
Gay, who has worked in the field for 11 years, said recess offers a daily opportunity for free play, which improves social and emotional skills, such as conflict resolution, allows students to better concentrate in the classroom, and allows them a chance to exercise.
“It’s time for us to reimagine recess,’’ he said, “as a way to support the whole child.”
The benefits of recess have been highlighted in recent years by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Both organizations have stated that withholding recess as a form of punishment for behavior or academic performance should be prohibited.
The civics club will take its findings to the State House and present them to a panel of teachers and legislative aides, which will in turn give club members feedback on their work. Called Project Citizen Showcase, the gathering of students from across Massachusetts is being convened by the Center for Civic Education, a California-based nonprofit that promotes student learning of democratic principles.
In pursuing the matter, the students have discovered that their project fits into a national debate about the importance of recess.
“Once we started researching, we found out that this is a hot topic,” said Moss, the 12-year-old club member. “It’s really like we hit a gold mine here, because so many people are deciding to get involved in this.”