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School Board Mulls Greater Recess Time

Parents argue that longer breaks will improve student achievement, health.

Next week the School Board will decide whether to mandate a minimum amount of time for recess at all Arlington elementary schools, which currently set their own policies on how long students spend on the playground each day.

A GROUP of Arlington parents are lobbying the five board members to adopt a minimum of 30 minutes for recess, arguing that giving students more free time will enhance achievement and provide a greater amount of exercise.

"Research has shown that by giving kids a longer break, they are able to come back and pay more attention and do better academically," said Deborah Duffy, who is the Arlington Science Focus representative to the County Council of PTAs.

In separate reports, two of the Advisory Council on Instructions’ committee have called for the board to establish a minimum of 30 minutes for recess. The Governor’s Healthy Virginians initiative also recommends a half-hour break time for elementary school children, Duffy said.

The School Board is considering changing the rules governing recess as part of its updated student wellness policy. The board is required to approve a new policy in order to receive federal funding for its nutrition program.

The board was scheduled to vote on the new guidelines during its March 16 meeting, but the item was pulled after an outpouring of concern from parents.

"Once I saw the questions and the tone the debate was taking, I wanted to spend more time on it," Schools Superintendent Robert Smith said.

There is a large disparity between how much recess time Arlington elementary schools allow, a survey by the County Council of PTAs found. At the 16 schools who participated in the survey, Kindergartners received 15 to 20 minutes of recess at five schools, 25 to 30 minutes at four schools and between 35 minutes and an hour at seven schools.

THE GAP between the different schools concerns parents like Janet Lacey, who believes that having only 15 minutes of free time per day can be detrimental to children’s mental and physical development.

"There are schools where students are being shortchanged," said Lacey, who has a kindergartner at McKinley. "This needs to be mandated so every child has the chance to take adequate breaks. This shouldn’t be left at the discretion of principals."

In an age of alarming increases in childhood obesity and diabetes rates, the school system should make extra time in the day for vigorous exercise, Duffy said.

Advocates of longer recess periods contend that the breaks increase student productivity and awareness.

"The ability to focus in school is improved after they get outside and run around," Lacey said. "They are sharper and more energized."

Unstructured time is also crucial to children’s social development, parents interviewed said, forcing them to make critical decisions and learn how to interact with peers.

"These days kids tend to be overscheduled," said School Board member Ed Fendley, who is considering voting for a minimum recess time. "When they have unstructured play time they set their own rules and organize themselves."

While Superintendent Smith agrees that free time is imperative to students’ social development, he believes that if recess breaks are too long they might have an adverse affect on achievement in the classroom.

Smith said he is reluctant to "tie people’s hands" and dictate how each school supplies breaks, preferring that teachers and principals make those decisions.

"I WANT to get across the message that we think recess is important, but at the same time we don’t want to be overly restrictive on how people use their time," he said.

The school staff is studying how a longer recess period would affect the rest of the school curriculum, and will report its findings to the board during its April 6 meeting.

School Board Vice Chair Mary Hynes said she is hoping to strike a balance between setting a minimum time period while retaining schools’ flexibility. Hynes is also exploring whether schools can split their recess time into different parts of the day, instead of having to offer it all at once.