Posts Tagged recess

Rhode Island’s New Law Mandates Recess for Kids

Published by — Apparently we need the states to step in to prevent the disappearance of playtime in school.

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Ask adults what their favorite subject in grade school was and often you’ll get “recess.”  Yes of course, they also liked the science of erupting volcanoes, reading intriguing stories, and hopefully much more.  But young bodies needs to run, play, and shriek.  Many adults remember the palpable relief of being liberated from their desks.  I am one of them.

You might think that recess is a given for little kids even into middle school.  Actually, not so much.  Elementary schools always claim to give recess, but researchers found that on a randomly-selected school day, only 79% had recess.  Of those, 61% of African-American kids and 75% of other minority students had recess compared with 85% of white children. Merely 56% of kids in poverty were playing.  Even at school, kids in poverty can’t cut a break.

An overview of the states show that few require recess.  Individual districts can set their own policies.  But the internet has pages and pages of complaints about not giving kids some time to themselves.  We’re often compared with other countries who give their kids plenty of time off (and have longer, less pressured school days).

So it was with mild fanfare that Rhode Island’s Legislature managed to pass a bill that requires elementary schools to give kids at least 20 minutes of daily recess.  Lest you think this new law would affect a mere handful of buildings, only 18% were already doing this, according to data collected by Recess for Rhode Island, an advocacy group.  The data also shows that school play spaces are often inadequate and lacking equipment.  Few schools have good indoor options.  Recess has indeed withered.

How on earth did kids lose their right to a break?

Usually the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), 2001, is blamed for the incredible shrinking recess.  Across the nation, school staff alleged that testing required endless test-prep that took time away from everything else.  NCLB demanded that all students be proficient in English and math as of 2014 — a stupid, impossible goal.

Still, threatened with sanctions, schools shaved time off wherever they could.  Any mom could have told you that tedious, mind-numbing test-prep wouldn’t produce sparkling results.  And it didn’t.  So maybe beleaguered schools were taking their frustration out on the kids.  Everyone was having less fun; cutting recess just made it official.

But another factor at work might have been to use NCLB as an opportunity to limit kids’ freedom to be naughty at school.  Many parents and teachers believe that free play leads directly to bullying, for example.  But the Alliance for Childhood, among many others, have evidence that free play is precisely where and when kids learn social skills, including the need to curb aggression.  If recess erupts with unwanted behavior, bad on the adults who aren’t monitoring the inevitable disputes that erupt among kids.  Socially-savvy adults on the playground can distinguish between kids’ natural process of learning to sort out their differences and aggression that needs adult intervention.  No one can learn how to handle their social world until they experience conflict and learn to respond to it both responsibly and effectively.

Punishing kids by benching them at recess is super controlling.

The original version of Rhode Island’s legislation, written by the recess advocates, prohibited withholding recess as punishment.  Sadly, punishment is still the go-to technique for curbing misbehavior, even though a preponderance of evidence argues that punishment doesn’t work.  Bad kids just get badder.  But the original mandate was rendered toothless to accommodate those who complained that withholding recess was a valuable tool for managing behavior.

The bill now asks school staff to try other options first.  Recess for RI’s data showed that fully 70% of the schools say they withhold recess for disciplinary reasons.  So, specifically those kids who most need to run and shriek are parked along some fence, usually for all to see, as if that would motivate anyone to behave in the classroom.

C’mon, who doesn’t need a break in their day?  Walking down the hall and having a chat with a co-worker is good for your mental health.  Everyone needs a mental pause to perform at their best.  Everyone needs to interact with others socially.  Everyone needs some physical activity if only stretching.  And children’s bodies especially are little dynamos.

Who have we become as a culture that the kids need the full force of state law to get 20 minutes off?  Still, some recess-deprived kids will finally get a break.  Thank God.

 (Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools.  Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant.  After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal’s weekly education column.  Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUBFor more, see or contact her at The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement here and internationally.

, ,

Leave a comment

Time, the Most Valuable Currency in the School Day

Published by — Setting aside downtime helps nurture the skills that let kids be successful.


Last week we marveled over what the International Charter School (ICS) in Pawtucket, RI could do by investing one minute of class time here and there with “energizers.”  But while a one-minute pick-me-up freshens kids’ ability to learn, what on earth would a whole hour of downtime yield?

Unlike most schools, ICS students take a giant break from academics in the middle of their day.  Though it’s a charter school, ICS has the same relatively short day as local district schools, 6.5 hours.  Carved from that limited time are 20 minutes for recess followed by a full 30 minutes for lunch, then a 10-minute quiet time — one hour.

Yes, ICS is a dual language school.  They switch languages mid-day, from Spanish or Portuguese in the morning, say, to English in the afternoon.  While the mid-day break helps with making the language switch, that’s not why they do it.  Instead, the seeming downtime is set aside to nurture skills that help kids be successful as people.

Time is finite, whether it’s a class period, a school day or a lifetime.  What teachers say they have enough time in the day to accomplish all they are expected to do?  Over the summer, administrators work for days on schedules as complex and convoluted as M.C. Escher drawings, shaving minutes off here to make room for new requirements there.  Time is the coin of a school’s realm.  How schools spend it reveals their values and priorities.

Charter schools generally have longer days than district schools.  The so-called “no excuses” schools — Achievement First here, and more famously Success Academies and KIPP elsewhere — have super long days, often 8:00 to 4:00 or more.  And so-called “progressive” charters use longer day to relax the schedule so both students and teachers can breathe, plan, catch up, and do time-consuming projects.  ICS sticks with the relatively short day of local district schools.

No one teaches or learns well when emotions or behavior are out of control.  

Darlene Pugnali, Assistant Director, emphasizes that ICS sets a high value on social-and-emotional-learning (SEL).  An SEL team — social worker, occupational therapist and others — meet weekly to case-manage kids and to balance their academics with adjusting conditions to help them manage their own emotions and behavior.  Self-management is far more critical to success, in all aspects of life, than advanced academics.  ICS spends much of the first six weeks of every school year establishing all manner of expectations about students controlling their bodies, understanding personal space, understanding others, using words to express emotion.  “It’s in every little thing we do.”

Kids learn social skills during social time like recess.

Many schools have eliminated recess outright, especially in urban areas.  As one superintendent says in a white paper, “We are intent on improving academic performance. You don’t do that by having kids hanging on the monkey bars.”  The gross misuse of testing results has perverted schools’ interest in what used to be called “the whole child.”  Social time is sacrificed for instructional time, even though no evidence shows test-prep increases test scores.

Furthermore, kids have become harder to handle.  Fewer families teach and practice traditional essentials like politeness, manners and courtesy.  Rude behavior has risen at every socio-economic level — just ask teachers.  Aggressive video games and Facebook don’t help.  Sadly, recess is vulnerable to bullying and anti-social behavior.

So ICS teachers mill around the play areas with the students supervising, but at a distance.  The kids are free to make friends, create their own games, get into scrapes with one another, and figure out how to resolve them themselves.

ICS never withholds recess as punishment.  Kids need a break.  Rule-breakers have to face consequences, but losing recess is not one of them.

Many other school lunchtimes are run like drive-by troughs.

Some schools’ cafeterias are so small that students are batch-processed in separate shifts in tiny allotments of time.  Move ‘em out, take a quick swipe at the place, and it’s onto the next group.  Sure, adults sometimes eat lunch at their desks, but even then they’re not speed-scarfing food so they can fill up before getting kicked out.

ICS students eat at a leisurely, social pace.  Having recess first, though — a research-backed practice — means they’re hungry and get down to business.  But they can linger and talk if they like.  Once done, they’re still on downtime and can read color, draw, and fool around.

The last 10 minutes are truly meditative.  

Quiet time helps them transition back to learning and to their second language.  Teachers play music or read aloud.  No talking.  Maybe heads down on desk.  Just stop, breathe, collect yourself.

Darlene Pugnali says, “The other day I was in Portuguese class and the teacher had the kids stretching while a calm, taped voice took the kids through guided imagery designed for relaxing.”  It’s like Star Wars’ C-3PO shutting himself down before going back into the fray.

Schools can’t presume that kids will come with social skills or good self-management.  But schools can provide the time and supervision that allow kids to learn these things themselves.  ICS’s results, enumerated in last week’s column, speak for themselves.  These people are scholars of the value of time.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

, , , , ,

Leave a comment

Only 1 in 12 Kids Has Normal Balance and Core Strength

Published by — Children are constantly in an upright position these days.  They’re not moving nearly enough, and that’s a problem.


Angela Hanscom is a pediatric occupational therapist.  A very worried occupational therapist.

And who are they, anyway?  These therapists help kids (and adults) get over or mitigate the barriers to daily occupations — bathing, toileting, social functioning, gaining more independence — if they’re injured, developmentally delayed, or otherwise disabled.  They help people on the autism spectrum interact with others.  They understand how to teach a Down Syndrome child to take as much care of herself as possible.

Occupational therapists are also among the people who work with America’s 6.4 million kids between ages 4 and 17 who’ve been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD.  That number has grown to 11% of the age group.  We’re the only country to break double digits in this sad stat.  Most countries barely make it over the decimal point.  England, usually second after the U.S. in worst-in-the-developed-world social health statistics, has about 2.4% diagnosed.

So, among her other clients, Hanscom’s include kids who have the occupational difficulty of tolerating schools.  Most are boys.  Many have had their fidgeting calmed by medication, but they still need strategies for how to sit still all day and resist the noise coming from their bodies begging for movement.

While working in classrooms of wriggly kids, Hanscom started seeing what she thought must be physical anomalies among them.  So she solicited others to help her conduct research.  To their horror, they found “that most of the children in the classroom had poor core strength and balance. In fact, we tested a few other classrooms and found that when compared to children from the early 1980s, only one out of twelve children had normal strength and balance.”

A kid’s body is designed to train its own vestibular (balance) system.

Balance involves a sophisticated integration of sensory data — sight, sound, movement — that helps people control their motion, equilibrium and spatial orientation.  Young bodies learn to regulate balance by moving in every possible direction.  This is why kids like to play with speed, twirl until they’re dizzy and fall down, dance, jump, swing, skip.  Their seeming physical madness is evolution’s way of helping a kid calibrate the physics of staying upright while walking, running, etc.

And the “core strength” Hanscom refers to is what the Pilates people often call the “girdle of muscle,” around the abdomen and the lower back.  The core supports everything else that uses gross motor skills.

Ironic, isn’t it, that as people age, their core strength and balance are the two things that become universally weaker.  And here we are creating a younger generation starting life with those weaknesses right out of the gate.

In the school off-season, Hanscom runs a camp, Timbernook, which for all the world looks like a forest kindergarten or nature-focused adventure playground.  In other words, it looks like a place where kids can actually play.  Not surprisingly, when ADD kids go to Timbernook, their symptoms disappear.  They no longer have to battle the crummy feeling of being a constant nuisance to the teacher, because at camp their fidgeting is free to erupt into full-on thrashing about.  ADD is considered a neurological disorder, but increasingly some of us believe that some kids’ bodies scream for attention so loudly that the noise ruins kids’ ability to concentrate for long.  At Timbernook, kids’ bodies are finally learning a form of basic education that the very structure of regular school forbids.

What subject is so valuable that it’s worth sacrificing learning balance?

Picture a typical classroom.  Consider what Hanscom says:

“The problem: children are constantly in an upright position these days. It is rare to find children rolling down hills, climbing trees, and spinning in circles just for fun. Merry-go-rounds and teeter-totters are a thing of the past. Recess times have shortened due to increasing educational demands, and children rarely play outdoors due to parental fears, liability issues, and the hectic schedules of modern-day society. Let’s face it: Children are not nearly moving enough, and it is really starting to become a problem.”

“Starting?”  I dunno.  That 11% statistic begs to differ.

Yes, schools are part of the problem.  But schools are only a reflection of the larger society.  Parents are absolutely insane for safety these days.  They’ve heard the line that “sitting is the new cancer.”  They know that clinging to electronics, indoors, for hours at a stretch can’t be good for kids.  But…  Even kids who are involved in sports tend to sit the rest of the time.  They don’t work on cars, create pick-up games, build stuff or ride bikes to a fishing hole.  They get a shot of activity.  And then sit.

So while we fuss about nuances of Common Core, we stop children from learning the most basic things they’ll need to support their daily occupations.  Drugs and therapy only mask the body’s biological need to cavort about.  Is this really working for the kids?

Hat tip to Valerie Strauss for reprinting Hanson’s blog on her Answer Sheet.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

, , , , ,

Leave a comment

School Recess Is Good For Kids’ Mental Health

Published by — Pediatricians, among others, believe that recess has a critical role in the school day.

Three years ago, prior to enrolling her son in the middle school, Phyllis Penhallow often had reason to be at the school just as lunch was over.

“I’d pull up, park, and the doors to the cafeteria would open.  Teaching assistants herded the kids out to some grass.  There was no real equipment, just a bin with 2 wiffle balls, no bats; 3 rubber balls, two deflated, no pump.  The kids stood there for about 7 minutes and then got herded back in.  I imagined herding cows out to graze.  Except that they couldn’t graze.  They stood.  I noticed the kids looked kind of sad, uninvolved, and not wanting to be there.”

And that, my friends, was those kids’ recess.

No running, whooping, cartwheels (it was grass), 4-square, tag, or card games.  No double-dutch jump rope, kids sharing the latest dance moves, or showoffs doing whatever solo physical feat it is they do best.  No explosion of pent-up energy.

Even worse, there was little visible socializing.  Research argues that a key feature of recess breaks — K-12 — is for kids to learn how to interact with one another directly, with adults only hovering supportively in the background.

And if all this seems like something kids can do outside of school time, read the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) passionate advocacy piece, The Critical Role of Recess in Schools.  Please note the word “critical.”  Breaks should take place at school — K-12.

During May is Mental Health Month, be aware that pediatricians believe recess should be treated with serious respect — or academics, physical, social, and mental health will suffer.

As it happens, Penhallow is a lecturer at the University of Rhode Island in the Human Development and Family Studies Department.  A specialist in early childhood, she consults with the State’s Department of Ed on early-learning standards.  She’s teaches about how children develop in happy, healthy, high-performance ways.  And she knows that national studies say recess is dying.  The time is being cut or eliminated and reallocated to academics.  Even where there is recess, obsessive-compulsive safety policies forbid running run around or doing anything deem remotely risky.  So the practices at Penhallow’s school, Chariho Middle School, merely reflect current thinking, however unfun.

But change was imperative.  So Penhallow started talking to other parents who, not surprisingly, knew little of the research on the subject.  But some — probably those with the super-wriggly boys — felt the kids should be more physical.

Everyone agrees that pre-school kids need to be very active, running, tumbling, making stuff.  But then they go to kindergarten and first grade and sit.  Teachers move and talk, but kids sit.  Yes, they get gym — often as little as schools can legally get away with.  But the AAP argues that structured sports and gym time is still very adult driven, serving its own instructional purpose.  Gym is no substitute for real recess with opportunities for kid-driven choices about what to do with each other, in, as Penhallow puts it, “adult-free space.”

Penhallow and her parent colleagues admit that, out of frustration, they were too aggressive in how they tried to make changes.  “You have to hear about the school’s obstacles, their structure, time in the day.”  (Always good advice, Parents.)  But eventually, the recess advocates won sympathy from the school’s administration and Chariho’s Superintendent.  The district lengthened the time a bit, and parents helped fill the bins with items for quick sports like badminton.

But the District’s most innovative move was to hire the Boston group, Playworkers, to train adults in supporting unstructured time.  Playworkers’ motto is:  “Make Recess Count.”  Their site has many relevant research studies and testimonials from happy principals, mostly from low-income schools where recess has all but died out as a casualty of testing mania.  Those principals adore how a rich recess experience improved discipline, liberating clear-headed time for academics.  Investing in adults who supervise recess gives kids’ free-time world a bit of structure and much more support.  Staying out of kids’ business and intervening only when asked or it’s necessary is a skill, like any.  And playing is essential — for all of us.

The efforts worked.  Kids report that recess is way more fun — not perfect yet, but a real break.

Obesity is epidemic, but we won’t let kids run around.  Violence, low graduations rates and a high proportion of disaffected youth are alarming, but schools rarely think about supporting kids’ mental health.  Skills for healthy conflict resolution seem to be at an all-time low — witness Congress — but kids have no time for supported social life.  Recess isn’t just rejuvenating, fun and relaxing.  It’s instructive in its own right.

At a panel discussing recess — where I met Penhallow — a pediatrician in the audience, Dr. William Hollinshead, suggested that parents ask their doctors to write prescriptions for recess.  Perhaps the schools will listen to doctors.

Because too few others are concerned that eliminating recess is making kids fat, school-hating and nuts.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

, , , , , ,

Leave a comment