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Florida Lawmakers Debate Recess As Parents Push For More Playtime

Lynn Hatter

Remember those school yard days of monkey bars and tetherball filling the recess time? In Florida, that time is optional for schools and districts. And while some kids get to enjoy recess, others don’t. Now the state legislature is stepping in to restore “Recess for All” and they’ve got some powerful backers: Florida Parents. In Leon County, about 20 Sable Palm Elementary Schoolers are running and playing on the jungle gym. Recess is winding down. and it’s clear some kids aren’t ready for it to end. Their teacher begins the final countdown.

"Five, Four, three...." she yells.

The kids scramble down the slides and ladders, and quickly fall in line. The last one skids to a stop. And all go silent, a stark contract to the jubilant whoops and yells moments earlier.

"And that's recess," says school assistant principal Jameeka Wallace.

Wallace says if she had her way, there would be recess every day. Right now all of her students are in physical education classes once a week for 45 minutes. But recess is just for kindergarten through second grade students, and it’s about 15 minutes. Third through fifth graders get recess, "when the curriculum allows."

“We are absolutely packing quite a bit in. On average, we try to give them about 2-3 days a week to go out and do that," says Wallace.

That's not good enough for many parents.

“We’ve heard district lobbyists’ unfunded mandate rhetoric. Of course it’s unfunded. It needs no funding. It’s a simple re-organization of time and priorities," says self-described "recess mom" Heather Millet of Winter Park. She has two children in elementary school. And she's pushed the Orange County School District to implement mandatory recess for all elementary schoolers, but the idea didn't go anywhere. So now, she's appealing to the Florida legislature. 

“It costs nothing to create an efficient schedule that has a net gain of maximizing learning retention. It would mean school districts would have a few less minutes on test-prep software, and we’re okay with that," she told a House education panel Tuesday.

Millet joined dozens of parents from Hillsboro, Pinellas, Orange and Leon Counties.

The time recess proponents are advocating for is small—just 20 minutes a day of uninterrupted play time for kids, and there are few disagreements on its value. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control cited its value in educationin a 2014 report. For advocates, recess is a no-brainer. It’s good for kids. It works. There’s just one problem. Florida schools and their districts face the pressure of having to perform well on state standardized tests. Funding, and even a teacher’s job, depends on that performance. And Sable Palm Assistant Principal Jameeka Wallace says that’s not an excuse: it’s the reality:

“We understand physical activity promotes health and wellness. But at the same time, we’re in a constant struggle right now. So the top of our priority list is academics," she says.

And  when it comes to recess, Wallace believes there’s a discord on what people want, versus what schools can give.

“Unless you are in the schools on a regular basis, and understand what our teachers are asked and required to do by the state, there will always be that disconnect between lawmakers, parents and the school districts.”

The recess bill, by Republican Representative Rene Placencia is gaining more co-sponsors both Republicans and Democrats, as it moves along. It calls for 100 minutes of uninterrupted, unstructured play a week for public school students. That play couldn’t be withheld for disciplinary purposes. Placencia says he was inspired to bring the bill, after parents began asking him about it.

“If school districts aren’t taking responsibility for the well-being of our children, it’s up to us to take that responsibility.”

To local school officials recess is a balance. And the price to play, may be too high.  The legislation has two other committee stops in that chamber, and a Senate companion has not been heard by any committee.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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