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Meltdown over Frozen Recess

Published in ChicagoNow, January 24, 2014

My granddaughter, a second grader, was punished along with half of her classmates for playing on the ice during recess. I knew she would be among the violators brought in for breaking the rule and the ice. She loves to stomp on ice pretending to be Elsa from Frozen. Unfortunately, she lacks Elsa’s powers and had to suffer her punishment as a mere mortal.

The incident unleashed the great Ice-Gate debate at her elementary school. Like many urban schools, hers has very little outdoor play space. As a consequence of our cold and snowy winter, much of that space is covered with ice and therefore off-limits to the kids.

So here’s a recipe for disaster:

  1. Take 100 second graders who have been cooped up day after day by temperatures too cold to have outdoor recess.

  2. Add a full morning of seat-work.

  3. Mix in a dash of standardized testing.

  4. Stir up children by not permitting talking at lunch.

  5. Blend in taking 5 minutes from the 20 allotted for play putting on full winter gear.

  6. Now, send these 100 kids out to “play” in the small area designated as “safe” due to too much ice and snow.

That’s on a lucky day when it’s above 20 degrees and they can go out, as opposed to indoor recess days. A word about indoor “recess” at my granddaughter’s school. Generally, it consists of watching cartoons for 20 minutes. Sometimes, if the kids are lucky, they may get to play organized games that keep them relatively quiet and calm. A favorite seems to be “wax museum” in which the kids freeze in place. Not much opportunity to run off that pent up energy that comes from sitting all day racing to the top and cramming for common core tests. Or from taking hours of those tests.

While I’m at it, do the powers that be really think 20 minutes of free time is enough for 7-year-olds to take a break from all of the sitting they do? That's assuming the kids wolf down their lunches quietly and get to go outside. My granddaughter accepts this as the natural order of school life. She tells me the “lunch teachers” do not allow much talking while the kids eat, but they can “murmur” (her word). Then they get to go out to “play” by standing on a small playground mostly covered by forbidden ice. How sad!

Over a year ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics described recess as “a critical time for development and social interaction,” and emphasized the importance of physical activity and breaks between periods of cognitive learning. Based on research starting in 2007, the AAP concluded that, in addition to providing much needed physical activity, recess, “really affects social, emotional and cognitive development in a much deeper way than we’d expected … It helps children practice conflict resolution if we allow them unstructured play, and it lets them come back to class more ready to learn and less fidgety.”

The report also condemns the practice of punishing children for poor behavior by withholding recess because “these students are precisely those who may potentially benefit the most from the break that recess represents.”

The educational reformers would have us believe parents agree that limited recess time is the proper way to educate our children so they can learn enough stuff to ensure prosperous futures. Have you heard the commercial for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) encouraging children to get started on this path at middle school science fairs? Apparently, many parents want something different for their children’s educations.

Over 40 online parental comments were generated by Ice-Gate, all in favor of more recess, more play, and more breaks from the joyless academic work keeping their children in their seats all day. They were far more worried about the lack of opportunity for play and unstructured time than about safety due to ice and snow. They said things like “let kids be kids” and talked about how sad it was that everything is considered a liability today, even playing.

My daughter summed it up when she wrote,

“When I attended this school over 30 years ago, we had two recess times in addition to a 45-minute lunch … What has changed? Lawsuits and parental anxiety have done away with the freedoms children used to have to play and walk to and from school. No Child Left Behind and standardization of education with its obsessive focus on test scores did away with the recess times. Does spending more time in the classroom doing seat-work lead to greater productivity? No. Are children missing out on parts of development that are important and actually lead them to be better functioning adults? Yes.”

Parents will be meeting this morning with the principal and representatives from the school district to advocate for their children’s right to play. They will be seeking short-term solutions to the challenges brought on by the cold and icy winter. The parents also hope to find long-term solutions to giving over 500 children enough time and space to run and play freely during their school day. Bravo! I applaud these efforts to stand up for what children deserve and need.

It seems most parents would rather see more of Michelle Obama’s Everybody Move at their school and less of President Obama’s Race to the Top (unless children are literally allowed to race around freely at recess).


by Laurie Levy
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