Parents vs. schools: The war on recess

As kids head back to school this year, some parents are celebrating a victory in the battle to improve their children’s education. It isn’t better textbooks or an improved curriculum or even better teachers. It’s more recess.

In Miami Dade, Fla., parents fought for 20 minutes a day of free play and got the school district to guarantee 15 minutes a day of recess. Similar parental pressure lead Seminole County to approve Florida’s first school-district-wide scheduling policy, which includes 20 minutes of daily recess.

The parents who battled their local district bureaucrats, school administrators and teachers for more free play time for their kids are doing it because they have to. The chance for kids to play, frolic and just have fun with other kids at school is under extreme pressure from education bureaucrats who think that risk avoidance and regimentation are the things children most need to learn about life.

In Florida, these parents faced every possible excuse for why their schools should reduce or even remove recess altogether. Some schools argue they can’t give up class time because they need every minute for test prep, while others say the kids don’t need a play break at all.

The stupidest excuse, says Heather Mellet, who organized the Facebook group Recess for all Florida Students, was that more recess would increase more playground bullying. “Kids get bullied in the cafeteria,” Mellet complained to USA Today. “Are you going to make them stop eating?”

Reduced recess isn’t unique to Florida. Schools across the country – from Spokane, Washington to Charleston, South Carolina -- have limited the amount of allowable recess and restricted what can happen when kids are supposed to be enjoying a break from the classroom and its rules.

The results for the kids are the same: less play, less freedom, less fun.

The restrictions include banning games like tag and dodgeball because someone might get hurt, for example. At Zeeland Elementary School in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2013, tag and all chasing games were banned. The same year, CBS News reported that at Weber Middle School in Port Washington, NY, a ban was imposed on “footballs, baseballs, soccer balls, lacrosse balls, or any other equipment that might harm a child or school friends.” Nerf balls were deemed an acceptable replacement.

An outcry against the tag and chasing games ban in Grand Rapids lead the school to clarify its position by showing students the safe way to play.

“Yesterday we took the entire kindergarten group and modeled the correct expectations for appropriate recess behavior and demonstrated examples of safe, fun play,” the school explained in a letter to parents.

Prescriptive, our-way-or-the-highway rules for tag are a little better than any outright ban, I guess. Other bans seem to have remained in place.

The good news is that pushback seems to be working. In June, Seminole County agreed to increase recess times after school leaders listened to parents and recognized, in the words of Florida’s Heather Mellett, that “children deserve to be treated better than little data-collection prisoners waiting for scraps of ‘yard time.’”

There was another victory for recess last June in Rhode Island, when Gov. Gina Raimondo signed legislation mandating at least 20 consecutive minutes a day for all of the state’s school children.

Janice O’Donnell, who advocated for the change in Rhode Island, has the right idea about why kids need free play. Along with helping improve their focus in the classroom by allowing for a break from the classroom, she says, “it's how they learn to get along with others, control their impulses, and solve problems.”

The moms and dads who have been fighting to liberate their kids from stifling bureaucratic regulation of their play time are great models of activism and success for parents across the country.

We all need to support their effort to keep this the land of the free—including on the school playground.