Revamped recess puts the focus on the physical

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / September 8, 2009

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They would ignore the brightly colored balls left for them on the playground and the hopscotch lines painted on the pavement. Instead, in past years many students at Conservatory Lab Charter School, in Brighton, would spend the half-hour recess sitting idly beneath a leafy tree, chatting away.

Not anymore.

The elementary school has hired a coach to organize activities for its approximately 150 students, who now play kickball, tag, or capture the flag. Sometimes, they twirl a Hula-Hoop or take part in other games.

Conservatory Lab is among a growing number of schools across the nation that are injecting new energy into recess - a sliver of time that has been under siege as schools devote more attention to boosting standardized test scores.

In many cases, elementary schools are organizing activities to help curb childhood obesity, reduce discipline problems on the playground, and teach a generation of children how to have fun without relying on iPods, computers, and cellphones.

School leaders say giving students a break filled with physical activity also helps them focus better in class as the day wears on.

About a half-dozen elementary schools in Boston, Cambridge, and Revere are plunging into the movement this fall, tapping into a national program already adopted at a dozen Boston schools in the past few years. In Worcester, a few schools are bringing in college athletes to run recess activities, while schools elsewhere are coming up with their own creative programs.

“Now there is zero inactivity and almost zero incidents of discipline problems’’ on the playground, said Annie Sevelius, codirector at Conservatory Lab, which revamped its recess last year. “We hardly have any fights. Before, there were skirmishes, arguing, grabbing, and trash-talking.’’

In reinventing the break, administrators are targeting a controversial trend that has seen recess time shrink or be eliminated. The national Parent Teacher Association and the Cartoon Network launched the Rescuing Recess campaign several years ago, fearing that the schoolyard tradition was slumping toward extinction.

Some educators dismiss such concerns as vastly overstated. Indeed, a survey last year of school districts nationwide, including Boston’s, revealed that about 90 percent of elementary schools regularly scheduled recess.

That same survey - conducted by the Center on Education Policy, a public education advocacy group in Washington, D.C., - found that 20 percent of districts nationwide had cut back or eliminated recess. The problem was most severe, the survey found, in districts that serve low-income students, who are at greater risk of childhood obesity.

The survey attributed the shift, in part, to schools carving out more time to teach English and math, the two subjects tested under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

In Massachusetts, many schools have also eliminated gym classes or reduced their frequency, either due to academic pressures or to budget cuts.

If anything, some health advocates say, schools should be maximizing physical activity at recess instead of limiting it or letting students squander those precious minutes. Even blacktopped schoolyards, common in urban districts, can provide opportunities for fitness activities.

“We know that recess for the low-income population is the greatest opportunity to make sure children get their daily dose of physical activity,’’ said Max Fripp, executive director of the Boston region of Playworks, the nonprofit program working with Conservatory Lab and other schools in the area. At participating schools, 80 percent of students, on average, are from low-income families.

“We know low-income students are getting less opportunity to play during the school day,’’ Fripp said.

Fripp and other supporters of recess also point to several studies over the past decade indicating that recess can bolster academic achievement by giving students a necessary break to recharge their bodies and minds, which supporters argue should help schools improve test scores.

“Kids are just like adults,’’ said John Macero, principal of A.C. Whelan School in Revere, which expanded its 20-minute recess this year by 10 or 15 minutes. “They need a chance to have some downtime.’’

Unable to find a suitable gym teacher, Conservatory Lab last year turned to Playworks, paying $23,500 for a coach who, in addition to overseeing gym classes, organizes recess activities and after-school programs. Each day, Dana Pulda, an energetic 23-year-old, sets up three to five activities, anything from jump rope to soccer, on a schoolyard that doubles as a parking lot for a church.

Pulda, who is like an older sister to many of the students, also teaches them teamwork, respect, and conflict resolution. Disputes over sharing often are settled in time-tested fashion: rock-paper-scissors.

“It surprised me how quickly the kids bought into the program,’’ said Pulda, an AmeriCorps volunteer. “Recess is their time to do what they want. If you take that away, kids can push back, but they didn’t.’’

A week before the organized activities resume for the new school year, recess resembled the old days. One girl told another she could not hang out with her group. A boy threw a Hula-Hoop high in the air and got it stuck on a tree limb, drawing a crowd of kids who tried to get it down.

Many said they were looking forward to next week’s return of Pulda and her games.

“You have more stuff to do,’’ said fourth-grader Julia Paige, 9.

Fifth-grader Annicia Kelton-Joseph, 10, said the break from schoolwork and the activities often reenergized her and her classmates, allowing them to do more work in class.

But there was one downside: “We come back all sweaty and hot,’’ she said.