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Recess Controversy Plays On

Superintendent’s recommendations met with the skepticism from School Board, parents.

School Board members and parents clashed last week with Superintendent Robert Smith over his proposal to provide elementary school students with a minimum of 95 minutes of recess each week, calling for a greater amount of unstructured play time for young children.

FOR WEEKS now concerned parents have lobbied the Superintendent to mandate a minimum of 30 minutes for recess at all elementary schools, which currently set their own policies on how long students spend outside.

Arlington parents have argued that longer recess periods will boost academic achievement, help students develop crucial social skills and provide them with more exercise.

Smith contends that extending the daily recess time beyond 20 minutes is not feasible because it would push schools below the state-mandated threshold for teaching hours.

"The state says we have to provide 990 [instructional] hours per year," Smith said during the May 18 School Board meeting. "How much can you provide while still meeting the state requirements."

The only way to add minutes to recess, besides extending the school day, is to shorten the lunch period, which is usually 25 minutes, Smith said. "Unless they have some creative accounting of instructional time, I'm not sure what else they can do," he added.

Several School Board members criticized the proposal as inadequate, and said that longer breaks would increase student productivity and awareness. The School Board is altering the recess rules as part of an overhaul of its student health and wellness policy.

School Board Vice Chair Mary Hynes said schools should supply students with up to two hours of recess every week, sentiments echoed by board member Ed Fendley.

PARENTS ATTENDING the School Board meeting were adamant in their belief that 15 to 20 minutes of free time on the playground was not a long enough break for children under the age of 10.

The benefits of additional recess are numerous, Diane Schwartz and other parents argued: It helps prevent childhood obesity, makes them more focused when they return to the classroom and teaches them important lessons such as cooperation and conflict-resolution.

"Our schools need to take the lead in demonstrating to children and their families the value of active, free play and its link to learning readiness, lifelong wellness and social behavior," said Schwartz, an Ashlawn Elementary School parent.

Anne Bridgman told the board that the amount of time children actually spend playing outside is much less than the guidelines, because it takes "precious minutes" for young students to put away books, don coats and line up. Therefore, if the board wants children to have 20 minutes of unstructured free time, they need to set a higher cap, she added.

"When we look back on this episode of Arlington school system history, I don't think we will be proud if we nickel and dime our young children on recess," Bridgman said.

There is currently a large disparity between how much recess time Arlington kindergartens allow, a recent 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.

John Charles, a parent of a first-grader at Ashlawn, said his son struggled with the transition to Kindergarten because of the lack of breaks.

Both Hynes and Fendley said they would like to see Kindergartners have between 120 and 150 minutes of recess each week to foster greater social and physical development.

"We have schools that are doing this right now in Arlington, and its my belief that we should provide that for all of our kids," Fendley said.