Stephon Lilly is about to get caught. 

He turns to a group of fifth graders about half his size and asks: “We just going to stand here?”

The question prompts the kids to simultaneously start running and laughing, as they make their way to the other side of the black top outside Chittick Elementary School in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood. It’s not clear who’s winning the game, but everyone seems to be having fun.

And that’s the goal. 

Lilly is a program manager withPlayworks, a nonprofit organization that partners with schools to help kids get the most out of recess time.

“This is where they learn how to interact with each other,” said Lilly, “how to get along with each other, how to problem solve.”

The need for an organization like Playworks is a sign of the times. Michelle Burnett, Chittick Elementary School's principal, says kids don’t play together as much as they used to.

“Children have a lot of time on their phones, playing video games, and it lessens the interaction,” said Burnett. “In the past, children were able to go home after school, maybe play in their neighborhood, and that’s not an option for a lot of students.”

Developing social skills has become a key focus in schools and ground zero is often the playground. When kids learn to resolve issues at recess, Burnett says, it makes for a better atmosphere in the classroom.

“I just feel that recess really helps with that social piece of it,” she said.

She says, for many of her students, recess is it: the only time they play with other kids. So, it’s scheduled in stone: 20 minutes, every day.

That’s not the case everywhere.

Chittick Elementary School students and their principal on the playground
Chittick Elementary School principal Michelle Burnett says recess helps kids develop social skills.
Stephanie Leydon/WGBH News

“I hear from parents all the time that because of someone’s bad behavior or because they needed additional prep time for testing, recess was taken away,” said Marjorie Decker, a state representative from Cambridge.

Decker is sponsoring legislation that would require kids from kindergarten through fifth grade to get at least 20 minutes of recess a day.

“It takes it off the table as something that can be negotiated away,” she said.

The teachers’ union likes the idea of a recess law and there’s ample evidence recess is good for kids: they get a break, they get exercise, they get back to class ready to learn. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who argues against recess. 

But making it the law? 

“If there’s an early release at noon, do you really need a 20-minute unstructured time?” asked Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “Is that a decision that’s made by law, or is that a decision that’s made by the discretion of the teacher?”

Scott questions the need for the state to get involved in an issue that can be handled locally.

“We’re very sensitive to mandates because we’re continuously being regulated,” he said. “The question is, are we trying to find a solution to a problem or do we have a solution that doesn’t have a problem?”.

The state keeps no recess statistics, so it’s not clear how many schools are cutting recess time. But given all the things schools are expected to do, former state education secretary Paul Reville says it’s not surprising recess time gets sacrificed. 

“We’ve got false dichotomies, and we’ve got an unfortunate battle going on here,” said Reville, “when we ought to focus on the real problem, and the real problem is that we have too little time in school to do all the things that society’s asking schools to do.”

Reville says there’s a way to make sure kids get plenty of recess and time for academics: lengthen the school day — an idea that makes legislating recess sound like child’s play.