Fight for the right to play: Parents seek more recess in Miami-Dade schools

Miami-Dade parents fight for children’s right to play

Local parents are pushing for more recess time in Miami-Dade schools after a push to mandate recess failed in the Florida Legislature this session.
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Local parents are pushing for more recess time in Miami-Dade schools after a push to mandate recess failed in the Florida Legislature this session.

Petra Christie pulled up to Sunset Elementary one morning to drop off her daughter. The familiar sight of the playground came into view — a plastic slide, climbing wall and shady trees.

Christie’s first-grader, catching a glimpse of it, suddenly blurted out: “We never get to use it.”

“She’s never outside in school,” Christie said. “I was like, ‘Wow, when do you go and just hang out?’ 

Remember recess? The running-full-speed, hanging-from-the-monkey-bars, digging-in-the-dirt type of recess? In some schools, it has all but disappeared. In others, it is taking on a 21st-century spin, with indoor dance sessions led by an interactive screen, or desk-side yoga taking the place of fresh air and open spaces.

After a push to mandate recess failed in the state Legislature this session, Miami-Dade parents are fighting for their children’s right to play the old-fashioned way. A petition launched by local moms on has gathered more than 6,200 signatures from South Florida and beyond. Their demand: 20 minutes of daily recess for elementary and pre-K students.

“Kids need recess,” said Paula Zelaya, whose son is in first grade at Downtown Doral Charter, a district-run school. “I think they do better if they have a space to relax.”

Some states, such as Hawaii, require recess as a matter of law. Florida isn’t one of them — despite an impassioned plea from Tampa- and Orlando-area moms this year. The Miami-Dade school district, the fourth-largest in the country, however, stresses that it already mandates recess at least twice a week.

“We are trying to treat the whole child,” said schools spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego.

But the parents of bored, stressed-out students say the requirement isn’t always followed, and even when it is, the policy simply doesn’t go far enough for little minds and bodies.

“Adults, we have a break. We have a break to talk to our coworkers. We have a break to go to lunch. We have a break to make a phone call. So how come kids don’t have a break?” asked Mary Padilla, whose daughter is in second grade at Phyllis Ruth Miller Elementary.

Now, a recommendation by the district’s Wellness Advisory Committee to make recess a daily thing is winding its way through the district’s bureaucratic process. The recommendation may also change the definition of recess to include short “brain breaks” that are integrated into the regular school day. It’s a trend across the country, with kids doing a quick exercise between lessons — but it may not be enough for parents who want unstructured, outdoor recess.

Recess is far more than child’s play. The physical, social and cognitive benefits of recess have long been established, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. But recess time has declined sharply over the years anyway. More standardized testing, higher academic standards for even the youngest learners and fears of injuries keep kids indoors.

“Children are really suffering with what we’re doing right now,” said Joan Almon, co-founder of the Alliance for Childhood, a national research and advocacy group. “Fundamentally, children need to play. It’s a vital part of their development.”

Children at recess spend more time in vigorous physical activity than in structured physical education classes — 21 percent of the recess period versus 15 percent of class time, according to one study. They also learn life-long social skills, such as how to navigate conflict when debating a bad call on the kickball field. Kids learn better, too, when they’ve had a chance to play: studies have found that students are more likely to stay on task, and test scores may even improve in schools with recess.

Despite the academic benefits, American schools have steadily pushed out recess in the name of test-score gains and more rigorous instruction. Since 2002, when federal education laws ushered in an era of high-stakes testing, 20 percent of schools cut back on recess, according to a 2008 report.

Meanwhile, school is getting harder. Across the country, states including Florida have adopted new, higher standards for teaching and learning. Kindergarten has essentially become the new first grade, a recent study concluded, with students expected to read earlier than ever.

“They’re defeating their very academic purpose by denying or cutting back on free, supervised play,” said Dr. Peter Gorski, who is on the national executive committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on School Health, as well as a top doctor at the Children’s Trust in Miami-Dade County.

María Rodriguez’s son is in first grade at George Washington Carver, where children are taught a foreign language in addition to the regular curriculum. The intensity of the program, coupled with limited recess, leaves him with little time to socialize or make friends.

“He doesn’t like to go to school because he cannot play with his friends. And I ask him sometimes, ‘Who are your friends? What are their names? He says, ‘I don’t know mom. I cannot talk to them,’ ” Rodriguez said. “It’s too much for a little kid.”

Teachers in Miami-Dade feel the pressure, too, cramming more and tougher material into the school day.

“We just don’t have enough instructional hours in a day,” said Karla Hernandez-Mats, president-elect of the United Teachers of Dade. “It’s really difficult that we have to put our kids in that environment because we want to teach holistically.”

With precious time for play dwindling, recess has taken on a new definition across the country. Many turn to short, active breaks to fill the needs of fidgety kids.

At the David Lawrence Jr. K-8 primary learning campus, Ching Chong noticed her kindergarten class was fading. It was the Friday before Spring Break, and the 5- and 6-year-olds needed a boost before finishing their cutting-and-pasting exercise on letter sounds. So Chong fired up an online program called GoNoodle on her electronic whiteboard. It provides quick routines designed to get kids moving or calm them down.

With a class vote, the students settled on the “milkshake” song. They knew the catchy tune by heart, as well as all the dance moves. They stomped their feet, wiggled like a blender whipping up a shake and waved their hands in the air, giggling and smiling the whole time.

After a few more videos, the class was back to their work without much prompting from Chong.

“They really need that,” she said.

GoNoodle is used in 68,000 schools across the country, just one of the ways teachers try to balance academic demands with the need to keep students physically active. Amy Christopoulos, an assistant principal at David Lawrence, said the school is a superuser of the program — mainly because it works. She said the school has seen benefits in behavior and in learning.

The school tested it out with a classroom of special-needs students. The teacher used GoNoodle twice a day, and at the end of the year her students took a standardized test.

“Her [class] scores measured up to regular education classrooms. So this shows this type of instruction increased learning,” Christopoulos said.

Gorski of the Children’s Trust said those kinds of breaks are important given the short attention spans of children, but they shouldn’t be used as a stand-in for recess. Christopoulos, and even the makers of GoNoodle, agree.

A lot of the power of recess comes from the fact that children can choose what they want to do, with whom they want to play and for how long, Gorski said. Kids can’t do that in a video-led dance, or even in physical education classes.

“Imaginative play can only happen when there’s free choice involved,” Gorski said. “Every child needs to dream, needs to imagine, needs to communicate.”

The moms behind Miami-Dade’s push for daily recess are calling specifically for unstructured playtime, preferably outdoors — and asking that it not be a substitute for physical education, according to the online petition. State law requires 150 minutes of PE a week in elementary school, one semester each year in middle school and only one credit in high school (and even that can be completed online.)

The moms behind the petition, who weren’t available for comment, want the district to require schools to schedule a time for recess, just like they do for lunch. That would make it more difficult for teachers and principals to skip.

“We are here to restore recess in our schools,” the petition starts.

Parents have fought this battle before. The district passed its recess policy in 2005 after a similar grassroots campaign.

School district officials say they leave it up to teachers and principals to follow the recess policy, and that any changes to the rules will have to take into account the variety of school buildings and academic programs throughout the county’s more than 200 elementary and K-8 schools.

Alice Quarles, the principal at North Beach Elementary in Miami Beach, said they simply don’t have the space for everyone to have recess every day. Classes have to be staggered to make sure there’s enough room for safe play.

“I think you have to look at your resources, what you have, and maximize that for your children,” she said.

When the district passed its current recess policy, an internal survey of principals and teachers found that more than a quarter of respondents said scheduling recess into the school day would be difficult.

“The teacher really has to structure it around the way her lessons go, and around the day. That’s why it’s very difficult to address district-wide,” said Gonzalez-Diego, the school district spokeswoman.

Christina Veiga: 305-376-2029, @cveiga