Parents urge Wichita school board to give kids more recess time

Linwood Elementary School students swing during recess after lunch. (Aug. 18, 2015)
Linwood Elementary School students swing during recess after lunch. (Aug. 18, 2015) File photo

Wichita students need more recess time – to get outside, run, play, socialize and decompress – several parents told school district leaders on Monday.

“I just want you to think back to when you were in elementary school. Remember recess?” said Will Watson, a father and flight instructor.

“Shooting hoops, playing tetherball or jumping rope – I did all these,” he said. “I just remember that was the greatest time ever. I got everything out, and I came back (to the classroom) and I was focused, and I could do what I needed to do in class to excel.”

These days, “recess has gone from essential to superfluous, an extra – or worse, a burden,” Watson said. “I don’t know what happened.”

Parents speak up

Four parents addressed the Wichita school board during its regular meeting, saying they are concerned that students don’t get enough recess time.

Amanda Watson, the mother of a kindergartner, said she and her husband were “shocked” when they got a copy of their son’s daily schedule and saw that his class spends two hours and 40 minutes each morning without a break.

“I understand that reading is vitally important, but so is the wellness of my son as well as his peers,” said Amanda Watson, who serves on the district’s student wellness committee.

When she volunteers in her son’s class, she sees children “hit a wall” after too much time without a break, she said. They start fidgeting, talking out of turn and distracting others. Her son sometimes dreads his daily reading lesson, she said, “and no kindergarten student should ever dread part of their school day.”

Wichita, the state’s largest school district, doesn’t have any specific policies or guidelines regarding recess.

Alicia Thompson, assistant superintendent for elementary schools, said 20 minutes of recess – typically before or after lunch – is built into the daily schedule for elementary schools. Students also get 45 minutes of physical education twice a week, she said.

Beyond that, teachers sometimes take students outside or to the gym for unscheduled walks or other breaks, Thompson said. “We do encourage physical activity,” she said.

Benefits of recess

Several experts say Kansas schools aren’t doing enough, however, and kids are suffering.

Rick Pappas, a former physical education teacher who now instructs prospective PE teachers at Wichita State University, addressed the Kansas Board of Education last summer with findings from a study of recess policies and practices across the state.

The study, funded by a grant from the Kansas Health Foundation, revealed that most elementary and middle schools don’t offer a 20-minute recess, which has been shown to improve children’s behavior, academic performance, health and well-being.

According to the study, about 61 percent of Kansas elementary schools provide two daily recess periods, usually shorter than 20 minutes each. Thirty percent of schools said they provide one recess. Seven percent schedule three or more daily recesses, and 2 percent said they do not provide any recess.

In addition, nearly 60 percent of Kansas teachers who responded to the survey said their schools do not have policies prohibiting the withholding of recess as punishment – a discipline strategy most experts oppose.

“We understand that the district’s under pressure to increase test scores, but they’re not looking at the research that shows children perform better after recess,” Pappas said.

“More then 50 studies show a connection between physical activity and academic learning. Kids behave better, they listen better, they’re more focused, and all that goes toward learning.”

Pappas, who taught PE for 32 years in Wichita, said one 20-minute lunchtime recess is the minimum recommendation for elementary school students. He and other health advocates think schools should aim for an extra recess of 15 minutes, preferably outdoors, at least on days that students don’t have physical education class.

“The classroom teachers feel their hands are tied,” he said. “I haven’t met a single classroom teacher who doesn’t think kids need extra recess. But the schedule they’re supposed to follow just doesn’t allow for it.

“I’ve heard teachers say they’re scared to take kids outside in the morning, because if they were to get evaluated during that time, they’d be in trouble for not following the schedule,” Pappas said.

Board member Joy Eakins said she has heard from many parents concerned about recess time for elementary school students, particularly kindergartners and first-graders.

“This is an important issue that I think we should discuss as a board,” she said, adding that she would request a formal report to the board at a future meeting.

‘Brain breaks’ not enough

Tiffany Carmichael, president of the Parent-Teacher Organization at her fourth-grade twins’ school, said she has talked with parents, teachers, principals and others who “strongly feel that (additional) recess is desperately needed at school.”

Three- or four-minute “brain breaks” that many teachers incorporate into their lessons aren’t a substitute for recess, Carmichael said. “Kids need to be out in the sunlight, running around,” she said.

She urged board members to explore programs like one adopted by a school in Fort Worth, which tripled recess time – from 20 minutes to an hour a day – and saw noticeable improvement in students’ behavior.

“We’re just asking for two (recesses) a day,” Carmichael said. “That would be so helpful.”

Pappas, the former PE teacher and recess advocate, said that over the past several years, schools across the country have cut recess time to make room for more reading and math instruction and test prep. That has frustrated kids and parents, he said.

“They know their kids need to get outside, and they need to move,” he said. “Research shows you don’t sit kids for long periods of time without moving them, but that’s what I think is happening in a lot of the classrooms.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias