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Atlanta schools bring back recess

Susan Notes: I'm especially delighted to read about Atlanta's good sense--finally--to bring back recess, whatever they choose to call it. If they have to tart it up in educationese, so be it. The important thing is that kids get a break. Some years back, an article on the front page of the New York Times about the then-Atlanta superintendent's abolishing recess inspired me to write What Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children Struggling in Kindergarten? Then, the superintendent insisted that kids don't improve their test scores by hanging from the monkey bars. It doesn't sound like the Standardistos are actually waking up to the needs of children; they are just responding to a different crisis. Nonetheless, when kids get recess, it's definitely Good News.

By Patti Ghezzi

Recess once extinct in Atlanta schools is making its way back. Just don't call it recess. School officials prefer "unstructured break time" or "wellness initiative."

But to Selema Gonzalez, a fourth-grader at Atlanta's M. Agnes Jones Elementary School, recess is just recess.

"What we like to do at recess is jump rope, play with a hula hoop and just play with all our friends," Selema said during a "National Recess Week" kick-off event this week. "Kids need to get out and have some fun."

At Jones Elementary, students play outside for 20 minutes each day after lunch. The recently renovated school does not have a playground, but a grassy slope gives children some room to roam. Some use sidewalk chalk to play hop-scotch, and others chat and giggle with their friends.

Atlanta officials did away with recess in the 1990s in response to increased pressure to improve academics. But officials have softened their stance over the past couple of years. After a 2004 law required Georgia school districts to create a policy spelling out whether unstructured breaks are allowed, the school board in 2005 decided elementary school kids should spend 20 minutes a day in unstructured activities, though not necessarily outdoors. Atlanta schools have been gradually reintroducing recess ever since.

In so doing, Atlanta joins other urban school districts nationally responding to the childhood obesity epidemic with a promise to emphasize wellness.

Around metro Atlanta, recess for elementary school students has always been part of the day at many schools. Other schools offer it occasionally or not at all, citing concerns about discipline, safety and a lack of space because of trailer classrooms.

Principals have flexibility

Many school districts give principals latitude on how often teachers take kids out for recess, how long recess lasts and whether teachers may withhold recess as punishment.

Some districts, such as Fulton County, are more specific. Fulton's policy states that elementary school students should get at least 15 minutes of recess, preferably outdoors on days when students do not have P.E.

Nationally, many schools dropped recess or scaled it back over the past decade because of the drive to raise test scores. But advocacy groups have applied pressure to bring free play back. Atlanta-based Cartoon Network, a sponsor of "National Recess Week," has pledged $1.3 million on its "Rescuing Recess" campaign.

Yes, the company wants kids to watch its television shows, general manager Jim Samples said. But company officials say there's more to the campaign than that they were baffled when they learned about the retreat from recess. "Intuitively this doesn't make sense," he said, adding that the campaign has found many allies.

"Basically, the public schools are agreeing with us," he said. "There is a rising consensus that recess is an important part of the school day."

Despite anecdotal evidence that more school officials are supporting recess nationally, some parents and advocates complain that recess of just 10 to 20 minutes is not enough and that teachers lead structured games, defeating the purpose.

Meanwhile, some educators are debating whether kids should spend recess playing tag and dodge ball. Some school officials fear students will play too aggressively. Elsewhere, schools are scheduling recess just before lunch, based on the belief that the fresh air will inspire students to choose healthier dishes and throw less of the food away.

For years, Atlanta school officials shunned recess, saying their students got enough exercise through structured physical education classes, which elementary schools are required to provide though not every day. Former Atlanta Superintendent Benjamin Canada famously told The New York Times in 1998 that kids needed to spend time on academics rather than "hanging on the monkey bars." Canada found few supporters of the all-work-and-no-play philosophy, with early childhood experts consistently saying children need time to relax, socialize and run around.

Even after Canada departed later that year, Atlanta children had no recess. Some teachers, though, found a way to sneak kids outside for playtime under the guise of an academic assignment, and some principals quietly acknowledged the benefits of giving kids some run-around time.

The school system stopped building playgrounds for new or renovated schools.

Thelma Malone, vice president of the Atlanta Council of PTAs and mother of six grown children, remembers when school playgrounds were constantly in use, even on the weekends.

"The school used to belong to the community, and we need to put it back," she said. "My children were sports enthusiasts. They played sports, and that started at school."

Today, a few city schools have playgrounds donated by corporations.

Malone said she wasn't aware how far some schools and districts had drifted from recess. She is glad the pendulum appears to be swinging back.

Eunice Robinson, principal at Jones Elementary near the Atlanta University Center, calls herself a believer in recess. She said her school, often praised for high test scores, has not sacrificed curriculum by making room for free play. Kids don't fight during recess, she said. Her students don't get into fights at all, because teachers keep them engaged in the classroom, she said.

Robinson doesn't mind not having a playground. "We don't have to worry about jungle gyms, about kids falling off," she said, adding that green space is sufficient. "It awakens their imagination."

— Patti Ghezzi
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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