Heather Jones believes youngsters should be free to socialize during lunch at school and that daily recess should be a right, not a privilege.
Tired of arguing that issue at Price-Harris Elementary School in Wichita last year, Jones and her husband finally decided to sell their house and move out of the district.
“I know it sounds ridiculous, but it was such a constant battle,” said Jones, whose fourth- and sixth-grade sons attend school in Goddard.
“The environment was toxic. … We finally just reached our breaking point.”
Wichita district officials are forming a committee to reconsider the elementary school schedule after a group of parents urged board members to increase recess and allow children more unstructured time during the school day.
What began as a few vocal advocates a few months ago has blossomed into a local movement. The group’s Facebook page, “More Recess in Wichita,” has more than 700 members, including parents, teachers and former teachers, and many have pledged to not give up until the district changes its practices regarding breaks for kids.
“What I’m advocating for is joy, play, creativity, pleasure, companionship, interaction,” said Marguerite Regan, whose second-grade son attends Riverside Elementary in Wichita.
“These are the things I think our children aren’t getting enough of during the day, and it makes me so sad.”
Wichita, the state’s largest school district, doesn’t have a specific policy regarding recess.
A student wellness policy approved by the school board in 2005 states: “The healthy school environment promotes physical activity and physical education for all students.” It also says that physical activity “should not be routinely used (i.e., running laps, pushups) or withheld (i.e., recess, physical education class) as a consequence.”
The daily schedule for Wichita elementary schools includes 20 minutes for lunch and 20 minutes for recess, not including the time it takes for students to clean up, line up and go outside.
Beyond that, district officials say, teachers may take their students outside or take three- to four-minute “brain breaks” inside the classroom as time allows.
“The directive has never been, ‘Every day, everybody needs to take a break at this time,’ ” said Alicia Thompson, assistant superintendent for elementary schools.
“We value recess. We value opportunities for kids to move and take breaks – absolutely, we do. But it’s up to the teacher and the building and their discretion to make those educational decisions.”
The challenge, some teachers and principals say, is finding blocks of time in an increasingly demanding daily schedule to leave the classroom and head outside.
Most Wichita elementary schools operate from 9 a.m. to 4:10 p.m. – about seven hours. The district’s prescribed schedule includes 4 1/2 hours of reading and math instruction, including several “uninterrupted blocks” for core curriculum and additional, intensive instruction for students performing below grade level.
Add weekly requirements for social studies, science, health, music, physical education, library and art lessons – as well as nearly four hours of teacher planning time – and there’s little time left for playgrounds or soccer fields.
Some teachers and others raised concerns five years ago, when the district adopted the Read Well curriculum for kindergartners, saying its more intensive approach to early literacy would mean less recess time for the district’s youngest students.
More recently, a collection of parents from various schools addressed school board members to advocate for more recess for all students.
And board members are listening.
“As a teacher, I could have never made it through the entire day without a break,” said Barbara Fuller, a board member and retired teacher.
“There had to be something that drove these parents to come to the board and share their concerns, and I think we need to look into that and talk about it.”
Extra recess at Horace Mann
At Horace Mann Dual Language Magnet, a K-8 school near 13th and Market in downtown Wichita, staff members earlier this year added a daily recess for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
Teachers have 15 minutes in either the morning or afternoon, depending on grade level, to go outside or have free time in their classrooms.
“So far it’s going well,” said Vanessa Martinez, the principal. “I would say the teachers seem happy, and the kids love it.”
Martinez said several teachers and parents lobbied her for the extra time, saying their kids craved movement and seemed to concentrate better in class after a break. In January she added an extra recess into the daily schedule, staggering times to make sure everyone isn’t on the playground at once.
“Believe it or not, I was thinking we don’t need it,” she said. “But then seeing some of the behaviors in the hallway and looking at the research, I thought, ‘Maybe there’s something more to it.’ And we definitely want to do what’s best for the kids.”
Martinez said her teachers plan to weigh the pros and cons of the extra recess during a staff retreat later this month and decide whether to continue the practice next school year.
“Like anything else, you can’t get something without giving up something,” she said. “On the other hand, if you give up this little bit, it’s going to help the kids in the long run because they’ll be energized, more focused, and they’re seeing that benefit.”
‘Ready to burst’
Regan, the Riverside mom, said she feels “disheartened” when her 8-year-old son, Tamal, talks about how little time he has to eat lunch, play soccer, run on the playground and talk to his friends at school.
“I’ve been watching him suffer for the last two and a half years – not enough time for physical activity, not enough time for lunch – and he’s an extremely energetic little boy,” she said.
When he gets home in the afternoon, “He’s ready to burst,” Regan said. The mother and son often ride bikes together, go for walks, or run on the track at Wichita State University to get fresh air and release pent-up energy.
But she thinks schools should do more to encourage exercise and social interaction.
“On days when they don’t have PE, I’d like to see more recess added,” Regan said. “I know we have to start small. … I know teachers are sympathetic, but their hands are tied. There are so many dictates coming down from the board.”
Tamal, a second-grader, said he likes to run laps or play soccer during recess.
“I play with my friends,” he said. “Sometimes we get to go outside for another recess, and that’s fun.”
Superintendent John Allison said he would create a committee to talk about recess policies and practices, and he appointed Thompson as chairwoman. She said members have not been chosen yet but would include parents and other stakeholders.
“I love feedback, and I love input from parents and community members because that gives us an opportunity to continue to get better,” Thompson said. “I’m not looking at this as anything negative.”
Jones, the mom who left the Wichita district last year over lunchroom and recess issues, said her biggest frustration was a policy at her sons’ former school that required children to be silent in the lunch line and at their tables until everyone had been served.
A former PTO leader and active school volunteer, Jones ate lunch at school regularly and said she saw students lose their after-lunch recess for infractions such as talking, not finishing their homework or not getting papers signed by their parents.
“They would have to sit on the sidewalk and watch everyone play,” Jones said. “Any given day there would be kids – mostly boys – just lining the sidewalk.
“These are kids who had been in class all morning, and I just think they really need to run and be active.”
She and some other moms complained to teachers, the principal and to Thompson, the district administrator, she said, but “We just got nowhere.”
Dave Saunders, principal at Price-Harris Elementary, said he understands how some parents might oppose “voice level zero” in a lunch line or kids losing recess for bad behavior. But he said such rules are reasonable and necessary.
“We ask to stay at zero (talking) because otherwise, they’re really not paying attention. It takes longer to get through the line, they have less time to eat, and they have less time to play,” Saunders said.
On a recent day at Price-Harris, about 140 kindergartners and first-graders ate silently or talked in whispers in the lunchroom until everyone was served. Then the para-educator in charge announced that they could talk at “level one or low-two.”
“Right now, they look really oppressed, don’t they?” Saunders joked. “No. They just know the drill. They’re smiling and they’re eating, which is really good.”
Students occasionally will lose recess privileges for mistreating classmates, disrespecting a teacher, not completing an assignment or misbehaving on the playground, Saunders said. But that, too, is a necessary consequence that teaches children to be considerate and responsible, he said.
“I can remind you and remind you to slow down on the highway. But if you keep speeding, eventually you’re going to get a ticket,” he said. “That’s the way the world works.”