A recess period following lunch has long been an accepted and expected part of the American school day. Younger kids flock to the swings and slides, while older students play kickball or jump rope. All are given the chance to run around and blow off some steam, supposedly allowing them to enter their afternoon classes rejuvenated and ready to learn.
This year, however, District 91 decided to eliminate after lunch recess in order to cut down on injuries and disciplinary problems and to squeeze some extra instructional time into the school day. Student lunch hour has been set at 30 minutes, rather than the full hour that used to encompass both lunch and play time, and teachers are given the discretion to give their class recess breaks when they see fit.
So far, administrators say, the changes seem to be paying off.
“When kids come in after recess, sometimes arguments carry over into the classroom and then a teacher has to spend time settling those things. Without recess at lunch things are more structured,” said Betsy Ross Elementary School principal William Milnamow.
Milnamow also noted that teachers are now able to use recess as an incentive for good work in the classroom.
According to District 91 Superintendent Randy Tinder, the new schedule makes recess periods easier to supervise as only one class is out on the playground at once.
Still, some parents are skeptical about the changes. “Let them eat and then let them run out and play…. Why is my daughter in 1st grade suffering for kids that can’t behave,” said Kelley Pacyga, whose daughter goes to Field Stevenson.
Pacyga questioned what kinds of problems would lead a school district to take such drastic measures. “How many discipline problems do we have? That’s really what alarmed me, you’re not talking about one kid per classroom, you’re talking about handfuls of kids.”
Tinder said that the discipline problems mostly consisted of minor shoving matches and arguments that kids often bring to the classroom. He said he did not necessarily think the problems had grown worse in recent years.
The injuries, said Field Stevenson principal Robert Giovannoni, are also not cause for alarm. “Of course when kids run they fall. We’re not talking about blood covering the playground. Ninety to 95 percent (of the injuries) are accidents,” he said.
Another concern raised by parents was the effect reduced physical activity during the school day would have on the student’s health at a time when several recent studies have concluded that well over a quarter of American children are obese.
Giovannoni said that though the schools serve nutritious meals and encourage parents to pack healthy snacks for their kids, health problems are mostly caused by student’s activity or lack thereof once they return home from school.
“(Some say that) anytime there’s a societal problem it has to be solved in the school ” I’m not sure that’s a realistic point of view,” he said.
District 91 Board of Education member Larry Buckley said that, while health is a concern, it must be weighed against other issues.
“It’s a tough question – when I went to school we always had recess, but times are different. Kids should definitely get more exercise, but if they’re physically being abused or beat up that also can affect them in a bad way,” he said.
One of Forest Park’s schools, Grant-White, eliminated after-lunch recess four years ago upon the arrival of Principal Wendy Trotter.
“I don’t like having kids rush to finish eating in 15 minutes and then spend the rest of the time playing,” Trotter said.
She said that she prefers to have teachers decide when to take children out to the playgrounds so that they can interact with their students during playtime.
Though the schedule might result in less injuries and arguments, she said, that was not her initial motivation in making the change.
Tinder said that the effectiveness of Grant-White’s schedule was one of the factors that led the entire district to adopt a similar system.
Asked whether the push for additional instruction time had anything to do with a push to ensure that the district’s test scores comply with the No Child Left Behind Act, administrators and officials answered with an emphatic “no.”
According to a bulletin sent out by the district, the schedule changes will result in 54 more hours of instructor per year for elementary students and 64 for middle schoolers.
The district intends to use these hours to increase math instruction time, as the district’s math scores were not up to par with other areas.
Giovannoni said that the district always wants to increase its students’ performance in meeting its own standards, not the federal government’s, He said the new schedule improves the school’s environment on a day to day basis rather than just on test days.
“Our staff does a wonderful job (educating students)…I honestly don’t think recess has any role whatsoever,” added Buckley.