Metro

More towns tell students: It’s time to play

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Fourth-graders played during recess at Burke-Memorial School in Medway.

Elementary school students in Medway are now spending an extra 10 minutes a day outside for recess, a move parents and school officials hope will lead to improved social and emotional growth.

The change from 15 to 25 minutes started just after the February break, and came about 18 months after a group of parents began lobbying the district for more unstructured play time.

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Kirk Souza, who helped launch Bring Back Recess Medway, said he’s happy school officials listened and responded.

“It wasn’t much but it’s a big improvement for us,’’ said Souza, who is serving on a newly-formed district task force studying middle school recess. “This is not just unique to Medway. It’s a growing it’s problem where schools are becoming more high stakes and less about developing the whole child.’’

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Medway is just one of several districts that is taking another look at the importance of recess — a time for children to take a break from academics and interact with their peers. Parents, citing experiences with their own children and statements from groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, have also come together in Hopkinton and Waltham to advocate for longer recesses and ask schools to stop withholding that time as a punishment.

“Children need a lot more unstructured time with their peers but we’re not utilizing that in the schools,’’ said Sonya Fairbanks Harris of Hopkinton. “It’s seen as play, as extra. They aren’t creative, they can’t think for themselves and they can’t collaborate. Fifteen minutes just isn’t enough. They can’t even find their friends on the playground in that time.’’

Fairbanks Harris said more than 500 parents signed a petition last year requesting additional recess time for students there. The school district held a forum and several parents attended school committee meetings lobbying for a change.

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Just before school started in the fall, the district added five minutes of recess for elementary students, giving them 20 minutes a day.

“We don’t feel it’s enough but it’s a start,’’ Fairbanks Harris said. “It may have been just to get us to move on but I think it’s a bigger issue.’’

School officials said they recognize the importance of a longer recess but noted that it’s a balancing act to fit in required academics during the school day. Massachusetts requires a minimum of 900 hours a year of structured learning time for elementary students and 990 hours for secondary students over the 180-day school year.

“It’s tremendously difficult to meet the state requirements in terms of time on task, time on learning and provide this down time,’’ said Kristen Herbert, director of teaching and learning for the Concord Public Schools and Concord-Carlisle High School. “It has to be one of your main priorities.’’

Herbert said it is a priority in Concord, which is why elementary students have two recess periods — one 20-minute break in the morning and one 40-minute combined recess/lunch in the afternoon. Middle school students have a 30-minute lunch period, during which they can go outside for a supervised recess, an option Herbert said is unusual.

“We’ve made a really conscious decision at the elementary and middle school level because we value physical activity for our students’ well-being,’’ Herbert said.

She said while the high school students don’t have a recess, they do have an extended lunch period that lasts 45 minutes, giving them some down time during the day.

Medway Superintendent Armand Pires said the district provides more than the required hours so principals had some flexibility with the schedule. He said while an additional 10 minutes may not sound like much, it adds up to 1,800 minutes or 30 hours over the course of a school year.

“We think it will help with the social and emotional dynamic,’’ Pires said. “We’re all overscheduled and our kids are overscheduled with all the great opportunities they often have after school. We don’t see kids going out in the streets playing with their friends and they’re losing opportunities to gain social skills needed to navigate relationships.’’

Pires said he is also forming a task force to study whether recess should be added for middle school students.

The American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement in 2013, which was reaffirmed last year, outlining the crucial role of recess and raising concerns about reduced play time in favor of academics.

“Recess represents an essential, planned respite from rigorous cognitive tasks,’’ the statement said. “It affords a time to rest, play, imagine, think, move, and socialize. After recess, for children or after a corresponding break time for adolescents, students are more attentive and better able to perform cognitively. In addition, recess helps young children to develop social skills that are otherwise not acquired in the more structured classroom environment.’’

The academy also believes that recess should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.

Amanda Song of Waltham said she helped organize a group last year that developed a series of recommendations for school officials. To date, none of their requests have been implemented, she said.

Song said Waltham elementary students have 30 minutes of recess but it’s often inside during the winter months.

Song said parents would like a longer recess, with less restrictions on when students go outside. They would also like a policy stating that recess will not be taken away as a punishment, and that some time should be given to middle school students.

“We can’t treat them like little brains on sticks,’’ she said. “We’re trying to grow people, the whole thing.’’

Middle school students in many districts including Waltham, Medway, and Hopkinton, do not have any recess time.

Song said parents are now regrouping and trying to come up with a game plan, whether it’s putting together a petition, attending School Committee meetings or starting a letter-writing campaign.

“If a pot ballot initiative can pass in Massachusetts, maybe we should talk about recess,’’ she said.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.
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