Framingham’s School Committee has voted to double recess time for elementary school students next year to 30 minutes a day, even longer than the federal government recommends.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises K-12 schools to give their students a daily minimum of 20 minutes of recess. Bills to establish that as a statewide standard in Massachusetts have failed to pass the Legislature in recent years, although a small number of other states have succeeded in mandating recess in elementary schools.
Researchers have found recess on playgrounds is crucial to children developing and applying their socio-emotional skills, such as learning how to interact with their peers and process their feelings.
Jessica Villatoro, the mother of a Framingham kindergartener, said she was elated by the school committee vote last month and hopes other school districts give students more playtime.
“They’re craving to connect with each other, and having a recess is a natural time to do that,” she said.
In Boston, the district already expects at least 20 minutes of recess for students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Medway Public Schools in the city's suburbs has mandated at least 10 minutes in middle school grades.
Many students lost recess when school buildings closed during the early part of pandemic. Communicating through screens became the global “new normal," but even children experience “Zoom fatigue” and need a break. School districts across Massachusetts, including Boston’s, have been looking at ways to remodel recess to help kids readjust to in-school life during the pandemic.
Playworks New England, a regional branch of the national nonprofit that assists schools with recess, has partnered with 150 schools across the New England, including 36 in Boston, to help maximize the benefits of recess. Depending on the needs of the school, the organization may send trainers to lead games and share helpful tips with recess monitors.
“I often say, let's reimagine recess as this essential part of the school days, because kids are going to benefit socially, emotionally and physically from it,” said Jonathan Gay, the executive director of Playworks New England. “So, as they're overcoming the trauma of the pandemic, this is like the best opportunity to actually make sure that kids are getting play because the benefits of play are going to just have such an immense impact on their development right now.”
In the last decade, at least eight states have passed laws to mandate recess for elementary schoolers. Massachusetts State Rep. Marjorie C. Decker introduced a bill in 2017 to require at least 20 minutes of recess for elementary school students, but it wasn’t enacted. Subsequent bills have also gone nowhere.
Tom Scott, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, says all students deserve a break, but the time allotted should be decided by school leaders.
“Time, in terms of the amount of time and how it's used, I think should be determined at the local level with the educators, the teachers and the principals making those decisions,” Scott said.
The pandemic may have made recess more necessary than ever.
Kim Parker, president of the Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts, cited the toll of the pandemic on their social and emotional needs.
“How are we letting children play? The Academy of Pediatricians says children need 60 minutes of play a day,” Parker said. “It’s the most important thing children should be doing right now.”
In 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics said recess boosts concentration, cognitive function and productivity when young children return to the classroom. The same goes for adolescents.
Rebecca London, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, advocates for recess in middle school because it is a major developmental period for early teens. She authored "Rethinking Recess: Creating Safe and Inclusive Playtime for All Children in School."
London said recess gives students “a toolbox that they can dig into later in their life when the disappointments become bigger, when the feelings of exclusion or the knowledge that somebody else is being excluded, can trigger empathy.”
Just because a fifth-grader advances to sixth grade, she said, doesn’t mean the child’s need to play and take a break in the schoolyard differs dramatically.
“They're the same kids, really, and they needed that break three months ago,” she said. “And they still need that break now.”
London said the main problem is finding time for a break in middle- and high-school schedules, where there tends to more instruction and class schedules vary by student.
Extending recess can also be difficult in lower grades. Framingham anticipates challenges making time for 30 minutes of recess in elementary school grades beyond kindergarten.
Boston Public Schools is taking on that challenge through Recess Remix, a collaborative effort in partnership with Playworks New England, to bring recess to fourth- through eighth-graders. Molly Rosen, a Playworks trainer, said those students are often forgotten because recess is not mandatory for them.
After she and Playworks intervened, Rosen noticed that students were better prepared to handle challenges like losing a game, which led to fewer fights because they were “positively engaged” in activities.
Medway Public Schools introduced recess at the middle school level, which begins in fifth grade in that district, in 2018.
Despite facing pressure to compensate for the learning deficiencies caused by remote learning last school year, Pires has kept recess in place.
“We could have come back this year and said we’re getting rid of recess and we’re going to try to find every second of every day to really focus on the academic loss and trying to mitigate some of the impacts of the pandemic, but I don’t think that that would have been as successful,” he said.
Pires said students needed more time to relearn how to interact with each other after the pandemic took those opportunities away.