Date: Sunday, October 24, 2004 Section: A SECTION Edition: FINAL Page: A1 Source: Kumari Kelly, Sentinel Staff Writer Type: FEATURE DOWNPLAYING RECESS MANY EDUCATORS SAY PLAYTIME IS A NECESSARY PART OF EDUCATION, BUT IT IS SHRINKING TO MAKE ROOM FOR CLASS TIME IN FLORIDA'S SCHOOLS. CLERMONT -- Their pigtails fly up and down like braided, flapping wings. Three elementary-school girls bounce between two others who hold the jump rope. If they take turns jumping, they'll have no more than two minutes apiece before they have to go back into the classroom. As at many schools in Central Florida, the kids at Clermont Elementary School have only five to 10 minutes during their school day to play. Many others don't get that much. Experts say about 40 percent of Florida's public schools have either eliminated or are reducing recess, as a growing trend to shrink playground time pervades the American education system. As schools spend more time on standardized testing and many become increasingly crowded, squeezing already strapped staff, principals often jettison the free time to meet mandatory requirements for instruction. Experts and parents decry the move, but state education officials say it's a local issue, and they have no plans to intervene. Many educators, though, say the trend harms kids not only socially and physically, but academically as well. Minorities and children with special needs could be affected the most. Many kids agree. "If we did have recess, I'd be able to pay attention better," said Rebecca Enright, a fifth-grader in Ocala. "I wouldn't be all hyper." WHERE DID IT GO? Recess, a mainstay of the school experience for many adults, began vanishing in school districts in the United States years ago. In 2000, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented that nearly 30 percent of the nation's elementary schools did not provide regular recess. Parents often have little idea that it's happening, assuming recess is as much a part of their children's school day as tiny milk cartons and No. 2 pencils. They may not think to ask. Most school districts give principals discretion on whether to schedule recess. But as schools in Florida grow, demands for better scores on standardized exams increase. The result: Child-led free time, known by generations of American children as "recess," fades away at many schools. Even in a school that allows short breaks, it's common for an elementary-school child in Central Florida to go weeks without experiencing one. That's because some schools may withhold these breaks for minor indiscretions such as a parent's not signing a school paper. Unlike federal labor laws that control an adult's workday, there are no federal or state laws requiring the youngest schoolchildren to have recess. Only two states -- Michigan and Virginia -- have passed laws requiring daily "child-initiated" playtime in the school day. Connecticut is expected to follow. In Florida, three bills that addressed more physical activity for elementary-school children died in subcommittees in the Legislature's 2004 session. Instead, lawmakers decided to study it. School districts were asked to send in their physical-education policies for review by a state task force later this year. "How many years are we going to study this?" said Jeanne Fifer, a Corner Lake Middle School wellness teacher who is a proponent of both recess and physical education for all elementary-school children. The B-rated school has a dozen phys-ed teachers and a wide variety of activities ranging from flag football to indoor-cycling classes. "I get about 30 e-mails every couple of days and of those, 15 will be from Florida," said Rhonda Clements, a professor of education at Hofstra University and president of the American Association for a Child's Right to Play. The group lobbies for more recess across the country. "Some schools in Florida have beautiful playgrounds, but no one is on them." In Polk County, where hurricanes robbed kids of 14 school days this year, the crunch has never been worse. "We are so strapped for instructional time," Liz Miles, Polk assistant superintendent of instruction, said of the post-hurricane school year. "Field trips, concerts -- these kinds of things -- might have to go too." Crowding in schools has contributed as well. Florida puts more kids in its schools than any other state. The average Florida elementary school has 694 students, while New York has about 576 kids per school. Jose Perez, principal at Loughman Elementary in north Polk County, remembers recesses from his New York City upbringing. "As a child, it was beneficial," he said. "When I got back to class, I was ready to get back to learning." But even with his own positive experience, he doesn't allow daily recess for most of the kids at his 900-student school. Only the youngest -- kindergartners -- still get a daily recess break tacked on to their lunchtime. "We don't have the personnel to supervise them," he said. "And we don't have a space large enough." Some school officials cite potential liability and safety issues as well. `TIME TO RUN AROUND' Kristyn Phillips, 9, enrolled at Tildenville Elementary School in Winter Garden this school year. Coming from another Orange County school with daily recess breaks, the fourth-grader was stunned to have had only two so far this school year. She said that after lunch, her class usually lines up in the hall and then goes straight back to the classroom where math work awaits. "I'm used to having recess, and I think every kid should have recess every day," she said. "I know school is for learning, but there should be time for every kid to run around." Rebecca Enright, the Ocala fifth-grader, has never had regular recesses. Her mom, Andrea Enright, wishes things were different. "I am sad, and I feel that my children have missed out on a special part of childhood by not having free recess time during their school day. They've received less exercise and less socialization opportunities," she said. Kids like Kristyn and Rebecca could have a tougher time making friends, be less focused during class and likely score worse on a standardized test than peers in a school that does allow more break time, experts say. Children, especially minorities or those adjusting to new surroundings, benefit from time to make new friends and play in recess games with peers, says Anthony Pelligrini, a University of Minnesota researcher, who has studied the recess topic extensively. Clements, the Hofstra professor, likewise said children with special needs often thrive most with recess. So removing that option may take away one of the few areas in which they excel. Substituting structured -- and sometimes graded -- physical-education time with recess isn't an apples-to-apples switch, recess advocates say. Physical education is vital for helping combat problems such as childhood obesity, experts say, but still nearly half of the nation's elementary schools do not have phys-ed programs either. Recess fills a different need, often allowing kids to develop leadership skills and helping the youngest children adjust to school. "Telling a kid to walk around the track is still telling a kid what to do, and that's no more a break than your boss telling you to carry a box of paper to the copy machine and telling you that's your break," said Lori Laughrey, of Hillsborough County, who decided this year to home-school after unsuccessfully fighting for more recess time in that district. OPTIONS AND ALTERNATIVES Nina Kuhn, principal of the Oakland Avenue Charter School in west Orange County, loves recess. Little wonder. Scores of children hug her as they pass on the way to their break. In only its second year, the 680-student charter school still offers recess -- every day. The day there is 45 minutes longer than the state requires, allowing for a recess of 15-20 minutes in addition to lunch. Teachers there have discussed extending the day even more. "How attentive are they going to be?" Kuhn said of kids if they don't have a break. "How many of us as adults could attentively sit all day with the exception of lunch?" The school's FCAT scores haven't been harmed. Sixty-nine percent of third-graders read at their grade level or above, whereas at Tildenville, where Kristyn Phillips usually doesn't get a recess, only 47 percent of kids do as well. Experts say that's not surprising. For instance, Pelligrini's research shows children are better able to focus on school work immediately after a break. Principals, though, are faced with mandatory instructional times, such as 90 minutes each day for reading, and recess often goes first to make room for that. "I think it's an outgrowth of the testing mania that's gripped schools in the last few years," said Mark Pudlow, of the Florida Educators Association. "We see a problem with it." WHAT CAN PARENTS DO? Feeling outrage is appropriate, recess advocates say. With little data backing up the reasons to nix recess and many documented reasons not to, parents should involve themselves, Clements said. Quizzing children about their school day is a first step. Connecting with other parents who have kids at the same grade level and sharing concerns often lead to productive conversations. "Go in and educate the principal on the value and need for recess," Clements said. In Florida, though, there is little momentum coming from those making the day-to-day decisions to push for longer recesses. Said Cleamstine Caple, principal of Clermont Elementary School, "I like the five to 10 minutes, because they have so many other things to do." - 30-
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