A group of Loudoun County parents want their kids to have more free time during the school day, and they’re building momentum for their cause.
Most Loudoun elementary students get 15 minutes on the playground each school day, the minimum required by the School Board. Local parents and educators who are part of the statewide campaign called More Recess for Virginians want to see that doubled.
Erin Long, a parent of four boys living in Aldie, asked fellow parents gathered for an informal meeting Monday evening to imagine if adults were asked to work non-stop for five and a half hours, to keep discussion with their colleagues to a minimum, and to be quiet in the hallways, on the bus and in the cafeteria.
“We wouldn’t do it. We have our mental breaks throughout the day, but our kids are asked to be on all day,” said Long, who’s helping to lead the local push for more recess. “With our big schools, they want to maintain order because there are so many kids, but they’re sacrificing necessary things.”
The renewed push for more playground time is spurred by a new Virginia law, which takes effect July 1, that allows school systems to count up to 50 minutes of recess each day as part of the instructional day. It also reduces the minimum instructional hours that must be spent teaching English, math, science and social studies by a total of 21 minutes per day.
“That’s five minutes from each of those subjects to create more, much-needed time for free play,” Ian Serotkin, a member of More Recess for Virginians.
Since the new law passed, Prince William County Public Schools agreed to double its recess time to 30 minutes a day. Fairfax County school leaders are considering following suit.
Recess, Serotkin and other recess advocates say, is about more than enjoying time in the sun with friends. They cite a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that more unstructured free time improves kids’ concentration and memory, helps them stay on task in the classroom and, of course, increases kids’ physical activity. The report goes even further to say that recess improves students’ social and emotional development, and that students with special needs could use that break even more than most.
Johanna, a fifth-grade student at Buffalo Trail Elementary, said it takes her longer than many of her classmates to finish her school work because of her ADHD diagnoses.
“If I don’t finish my work, I don’t get recess … and you can hear them playing through the window and you just think I want recess,” she said. “We need more time to just be kids.”
Sophia Ashby said her kids, a first- and fourth-grader, are already overwhelmed with school. They’re told all day to hurry to finish assignments, hurry and eat, and even hurry up with recess. “They are stressed to the max,” Ashby said. “And these are the years where they should be enjoying school.”
Rita, the mother of a first grader, said her son finds a way to get those mental breaks. He asks to go to the bathroom, get a drink of water or visit the nurse. “The nurse has told me they use excuses just so they can roam the halls for a minute. They’re finding ways to get out of the classroom. This is clearly a need.”
School Board member Beth Huck (At Large), who attended the More Recess for Virginians meeting to hear to their concerns, agreed. “I’m almost positive teachers will also be in agreement with you,” said Huck, herself a former educator. “Honestly, I think most feel having more time for unstructured, completely free play means they can concentrate more on a lesson.”
A school administrator who attended the More Recess for Virginians meeting but declined to give her name or exact position said she supports the idea, but it may be a real challenge to fit more time on the playground into the schedule at the county’s crowded elementary schools. A large school has 45 classes that need to get through the cafeteria and onto the playground in shifts, and then principals want to avoid having fifth graders with kindergarteners, and so on. “So there’s a lot of logistics in there,” she said.
The parents, educators and elementary students who gathered for the meeting fine-tuned their list of recommendations that they plan to present to a committee of the School Board next week. They are recommending the school system require elementary principals to give students a minimum of 40 minutes of recess, split into a morning and afternoon recess. They also want educators to be prohibited from excluding students from recess for disciplinary reasons or academic performance.
For now, their efforts are focused on elementary school, but Long said they plan to eventually advocate that students in middle school and high school also get free time, other than their study hall when there are strict rules about what’s allowed.
“Students at every grade level need this,” said Michelle, a bus driver for the school system. “They need an outlet for that creative play time so it’s not so pent up and crazy when I’m trying to drive them home safely.”