Parents seek to seesaw swing to shorter school recess

By CHRISTOPHER GAVIN

The MetroWest

Daily News

HOPKINTON, Mass. (AP) — After moving to Hopkinton a few years ago, Sonya Fairbanks Harris was a bit shocked.

Upon enrolling her two sons in Hopkinton Public Schools, she learned that her children — accustomed to 45 minutes of play time each school day in their old school in California — were now receiving 15 minutes of recess.

“At 4:00, I can’t rewind a child from multiple tantrums because they’ve been holding it together” all day, she said.

Her concern for overburdening children with schoolwork was not alone though, as parents in MetroWest and the Milford area have joined together to demand longer recess periods for students.

Improved classroom productivity and focus and healthier lifestyles for their students are among the possible outcomes a few more minutes of playtime can provide, they said.

“Every bit of research shows that it’s really not to the school’s advantage to have less and less recess,” said Fairbanks Harris, a member of the Hopkinton Parents for Increased Recess Time, who has researched the issue personally.

The parent group garnered over 560 signatures on an online petition requesting more playtime in Hopkinton schools this past spring.

Citing educators’ general concerns about test scores and school rankings, Kirk Souza, a founding member of the Bring Back Recess Medway group, said it seems school has certainly changed since he was young.

“We’re in this measurement trap when we’re hyper focused on academics … and we fall behind on social and emotional health,” Souza said.

But a lot must be done for children to have time to spend not working at all.

Under state regulations, elementary schools are required to complete at least 900 hours of learning time each school year, 990 for secondary institutions.

Any time not spent in school not in class — the walk through hallways between classes, lunch time, among others — does not count.

This means administrators must budget the school day carefully.

“Essentially based on what we have to do … if we increase recess time we would have to increase the entire school day,” Hopkinton Schools Assistant Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh said.

Increasing the school day could be challenging for administrators, they said, since doing so would require a need to renegotiate teacher union contracts and work schedules.

However, Hopkinton educators have found unique ways to bolster student movement and activity this school year while working under the confines of the current contract, according to Hopkins School Principal Vanessa Bilello.

Students used to receive 15 minutes of recess and a 30-minute lunch, Bilello said. But by separating the two periods, administrators carved out an extra five minutes for recess, she said.

They’ve also extended the activities into the lunchroom, where on certain days a visitor may find children dancing or doing yoga to the instructions of a video program. Students may also perform skits on Mondays or head out to the field to walk in the Mileage Club on Wednesdays — a session powered on parent-volunteer supervision, Bilello said.

Per their contract, teachers are allowed a 30-minute lunch without supervising duties that they take while their students eat, Bilello said.

“We’re trying to find creative ways so (the students are) not sitting there in lunch for 30 minutes,” Bilello said, adding that educators encourage movement in classrooms, too.

But the amendments are not the 35-minute recess period parents are seeking, nor are the lunch activities necessarily the “unstructured” free time that children receive during a recess period, Fairbanks Harris said.

“It does feel as if … this isn’t a huge priority for (school officials),” she said. “It’s not something they’re passionate about.”

Similarly in Medway, tweaks to school schedules are simply not enough, Souza said.

After a push to increase 15-minute elementary recess was brought to officials last year, a subcommittee of parents and teachers studied the subject and recommended officials increase it to 25 minutes.

Administrators are currently in contract negotiations with the Medway Federation of Teachers that would allow for the change, according to Medway Superintendent Armand Pires. Although the process is confidential, Pires said that teachers do understand how valuable recess can be.

Concurrently, parents of Medway Middle School — which serves grades five through eight — students sought to add a recess period to the schedule.

A re-worked schedule provided seven extra minutes for lunch, which students have been using to go outside when they’re finished eating, Pires said.

But, Souza said the changes still are not enough time for students to unwind.

“I want to see middle schoolers having a proper lunch and a proper recess … (The lunch extension) doesn’t really accomplish what we want to do,” Souza said.

Instead, Souza said it is possible to alleviate some of the burden of the state’s instructional hours laws if the School Committee amends the classification of Medway Middle School from secondary to elementary.

However, Pires said the secondary classification ensures students receive the time in class they need to thrive in their courses and on state tests.

Before the school was reclassified about five years ago, students were not performing at the same level they are now, he said.

“There is an important element of us focusing on the academic work,” Pires said, adding that the school is also focusing on students’ emotional and social health through other avenues beyond recess.

The next step for Medway schools is to implement the new recess rules, assess any effects and then decide how the district will move forward, Pires said.

Souza said he would continue working with school officials to find ways to extend and improve recess.

“There’s no (reason) why we can’t be classified elementary and still have the same high standards for our students,” he said.

In Hopkinton, Fairbanks Harris said she has taken to searching for flexibility in the state instructional hours law. She said the parent group also hopes to continue the push for more recess through educating the public about its benefits and working with school administrators to move forward.

She said she thinks extended play time for children will be a trend in schools in the next 10 to 20 years.

“We have to be in this for the long haul … If you want to be on the cutting edge, the change is in longer recess,” she said.