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Recess policy up for review by Tacoma School District

Tacoma district considers more time for play. Some principals argue against recess of any kind outside of lunchtime because it interferes with the dayâs schooling.

by Kris Sherman

Ask a kid his or her favorite subject in elementary school and the answer is often the same. âRecess,â theyâll proclaim with resounding enthusiasm.

But itâs become an increasingly endangered rite of kidship in the high-standards, No Child Left Behind world.

Eight Tacoma elementary schools often have a scheduled play time outside the traditional lunch-and-recess break, but thereâs no consistency to the practice, a district survey shows. Most elementaries, however, donât schedule recess outside of lunchtime.

Now, School Board members are studying whether more out-of-class exercise time is needed for 21st century kids, many of whom pack on the pounds sitting at computers or game consoles with mice or joysticks in their hands.

Theyâll get a report this week from administrators, whoâve surveyed principals and teachers on the issue.

The teachersâ answers werenât available late last week, but a query to principals of the cityâs 37 elementaries shows no consistent practices.

âSome principals appear eager to revisit the policy, while others feel that it is best to keep it as it is and not introduce a second recess,â assistant superintendent Flip Herndon wrote in a May memo.

The School Board wonât take action on the issue this week, vice president Kim Golding said. The five-member panel is gathering information for possible future action.

Golding believes itâs the right time to rethink recess.

âNot too long ago, we were hearing stories from community members, from families that their schools werenât having recess,â Golding said. âThere was a concern that some principals werenât letting their teachers do recess ⦠there were a lot of inconsistenciesâ

A News Tribune survey of several South Sound school systems shows that either a morning or afternoon recess â or both â is common in addition to the lunch break. Many districts let principals and teachers decide how these are scheduled.

Tacomaâs recess re-examination comes against the backdrop of an American Medical Association report last week that the nationâs kids may be active at age 9, but theyâre turning into lumps on the couch by 15.


Four years ago, then-assistant superintendent Karyn Clarke put the kibosh on regularly scheduled recess in Tacomaâs lower grades, outside of the lunch break. Her memo to principals reinforced a 1997 rule, she said at the time. She also pointed out that more rigorous academic standards left less space in the day for play.

The September 2004 episode had parents and educators choosing up sides and made national news.

A Whittier Elementary parent group launched www.saveourrecess.com.

Kids at Lowell Elementary circulated pro-recess petitions.

Dozens of parents harangued the School Board in person, by telephone and e-mail.

Their message: The Tacoma School District was stealing away a piece of childhood.

School officials, including then-Superintendent Jim Shoemake, explained the policy really hadnât changed since 1997. Teachers could schedule an outside activity or playtime when they felt kids needed it; but there was no room for the old-fashioned ringing of a daily midmorning or midafternoon bell signaling time for a traditional 15-or-20-minute recess.

In December 2004, the teachers union backed a PTA proposal to guarantee recess for elementary students.

The next summer, this language showed up in a health, nutrition and physical fitness policy adopted by the board: âIn addition to required health, nutrition and fitness education, consideration should be given to a 15-minute recess in addition to the lunch recess, at a time determined by the teacherâ to meet instructional needs.

But an administrative regulation on the issue approved in June 2006 and revised in January 2007 points out that a normal recess canât be used to meet a state requirement of 100 minutes of P.E. instruction for kids.

If recess is considered, it ought to contain âteacher-directed physical activitiesâ the regulation says.

All the bureaucratic language and the lack of one consistent policy across the 29,000-student system left many school staff members, parents and kids bewildered. Some, at schools like Whittier Elementary where recess-by-the-bell went away, were angry.

When board member Debbie Winskill visited schools, recess was often brought up. People wanted to know why kids on one campus would get recess while students at another school would not, Winskill said.


The confusion prompted Golding, backed by Winskill and other board members, to seek further study.

Some principals argue against recess of any kind outside of lunchtime because it interferes with the dayâs schooling.

One unnamed principal wrote in answer to the districtâs survey that breaks outside lunch âare truly occasional â weeks go by without any additional recess for any class. Our day is too short already to take additional time away from the curriculum.â

But another principal wrote about the link between brain development and physical activity. At that principalâs school, in addition to about 20 minutes of playtime at the lunch break, all-day kindergartners got an additional 10 minutes of recess a day. Kids in first through third grades got 10 minutes of supervised playground time each afternoon.

âTo my knowledge, there has never been a complaint about having too much playtime,â the principal wrote.

As evidence mounts that inactive kids can become fat kids who turn into fat adults, fitness and consumer groups across the nation are calling for ways to entice youngsters to exercise more.

State Sen. Rosa Franklin, D-Tacoma, and a group of other legislators offered a bill in 2007 and again in 2008 to require recess in elementary schools.

It later was amended to require only a survey of recess practices in the stateâs elementary schools with a report to the Legislature by Dec. 1. It did not pass.

The X-factor in Tacomaâs reevaluation of recess may be the 30 minutes that will be added to the elementary school day come September. Until now, Tacomaâs elementaries hewed to a six-hour day, while kids in other districts were on campus for 61/2 hours. When district officials announced they would lengthen the elementary school day by 30 minutes in the 2008-2009 school year, Superintendent Art Jarvis said there was no specific plan for how that time would be used.

Some are hoping a little more recess is in the game plan.

But there are no guarantees.

âI think that weâre going to ask Dr. Jarvis for some options,â Golding said. âI think the longer day is a part of the discussion but not necessarily the easy fix, either.â

Golding says sheâs a strong advocate for more recess, but she also points out that âthere needs to be a strong balanceâ of activities.

Whittier Elementary parent Phaedra Miller thinks playground activity is an important part of education.

âI think that the kids need the time to get out of the classroom and be active and let off some steam,â she said. âAdults get breaks at work, so why donât kids get breaks, too?â

Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659
What other schools do

Hereâs a look at elementary school recess practices in several South Sound school systems, according to officials with each district:

Bethel: Daily recess for elementary school students with unstructured but supervised play. Schools decide the length and the time of recess.

Carbonado: Kindergarten, 15 minutes; first and second grades, 15 minutes in the morning, 20 minutes at lunch; third through fifth grades, 20 minutes in the morning, 20 minutes at lunch; sixth through eighth grades, 20 minutes at lunch.

Clover Park: General practice is two recesses a day, 15 minutes in the morning and about 20 minutes at lunchtime.

Dieringer: Morning and lunch recess. Teachers sometimes add an afternoon break, which they supervise.

Eatonville: No districtwide policy. Each school sets its own recess routine.

Enumclaw: No districtwide policy. Each school determines its own schedule, generally a 10-minute morning recess and a 20- to 30-minute recess at lunchtime.

Fife: Practice is 10 minutes in the morning; 35-minute lunch-and-recess break midday; 15-minute afternoon recess.

North Thurston: Most elementaries have two recesses a day â one at lunchtime and the other in the morning or the afternoon.

Orting: Changes are in the works. Recess was curtailed at one school to provide more uninterrupted reading time; a similar schedule may be put in place at a second school this coming year.

Peninsula: Recess is standard across the district, with each school managing times. Kids at Artondale Elementary, for example, get recess in the morning, at lunch and in the afternoon. Bells signal the break times.

Steilacoom: No set policy. The district follows state requirements for elementary physical education.

Tacoma: Kids get recess time at lunch. Other breaks are scheduled by each school or teacher as desired. There is no set by-the-bell recess.

University Place: Standard schedule includes 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at lunch in kindergarten through fourth grades; a 20-minute lunch recess in fifth through seventh grades.

— Kris Sherman
The News Tribune


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