More recess time for students is the mission for Miami-Dade moms

Why do kids need recess?

Fourth grade students from Key Biscayne K-8 talk about why kids need recess.
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Fourth grade students from Key Biscayne K-8 talk about why kids need recess.

Their professional backgrounds are in communications and lobbying, international development and the law. The word they use to describe themselves is “determined.” And their goal is to make recess in school nothing short of a daily, guaranteed right for kids.

Meet Kate Asturias, Louisa Conway, Debora Hertfelder and Victoria Kenny: a group of super-charged moms who promise to let nothing and no one stand in their way.

Not the leaders of the Miami-Dade school district, who stress they already have a recess policy. Not lawmakers who killed a bill to mandate recess last session. Not teachers and principals who say there isn’t enough time or space.

“We can do this, and we’re going to do this,” Asturias said.

The moms are demanding 20 minutes a day of supervised play — preferably outdoors and definitely unstructured by adults. They’re also asking for recess to be built into the school schedule just like music and math.

They carry the support of almost 7,000 people who have signed an online petition the women launched about a month ago.

“It’s something everybody agrees on. Let’s just do it,” Asturias said.

The group came together through the award-winning PTA at Key Biscayne K-8, which organized a few community meetings after parents complained their kids hadn’t gone out to play in months. Each woman brings a personal story to their budding campaign to reclaim recess.

Hertfelder became an advocate when she asked her son a simple question: What’s your favorite part of school? His response shocked her: The bathroom.

“I was like, why the bathroom,” she said. “And he said, ‘Because the bathroom is the only place that I get to have a break, that I can stop for a few minutes and just relax for a little bit.’”

Conway saw the same thing first-hand as a volunteer in her child’s classroom. She sometimes had to go to the bathrooms to retrieve little kids who had gone there to hang out. It’s not hard to understand why, she says: Imagine a 6-year-old child who sits through hour after hour of classroom instruction without a chance to move around, socialize or just daze out.

“I know I’m probably one of those tiger moms who’s always like, ‘Focus, focus, focus on your education, on your academics,’ and forgot that we’re talking about little kids,” she said. “They’re not robots.”

Conway admits high expectations for academic performance from teachers, principals and district leaders have vaulted her school — and the whole district — to prominence. But that comes at a cost to children, she says — especially young ones.

“You sort of did this on the back of our kids,” Conway said. “They are stressed out of their minds.”

These moms know they’re up against arguments that there isn’t enough time for play given the pressures schools are under today. New, tougher learning standards have recently been implemented in classrooms across the country and test scores are used to decide everything from teacher pay to school funding.

They’re not buying any of those arguments.

Kenny, a former teacher in her native Argentina, stresses that studies have shown that giving kids time to play can actually boost classroom performance. Once people understand that, Kenny said, they’ll understand that they don’t have to choose between good grades and recess.

“It’s not just a human right, it’s also part of the education equation,” Kenny said. “We are raising and educating 21st Century kids. We are raising and educating the whole child. Free play is a part of education.”

Asturias points to other states, under similar pressures to perform, that already mandate recess. The state only requires 90 minutes of instruction a day in reading and 150 a week in PE, Asturias said. The district is free to allocate the rest of the school day as officials please, she argues.

“They like to blame the ‘schedule,’ like the schedule is this person you can call and complain to, like it’s the schedule’s fault,” Asturias said. “The schedule is absolutely, 100 percent, created by Miami-Dade public schools.”

The school district already requires recess at least twice a week. Miami-Dade is one of only two districts in Florida that has a recess policy on the books, according to Asturias. Despite the policy, many parents say their kids aren’t getting free time to play.

District leaders say they rely on parents to report violations of the policy, but that’s not good enough for the recess moms. They want to see school principals held responsible and more district oversight to make sure schools are actually allowing time to play. Otherwise, the policy is just “wasted words on paper,” Conway said.

“We left this up to the school boards, and they seem to have failed here because they left it up to the site administrators. And everything just fell apart,” Conway said.

For Conway, who has worked on social justice issues in the past, it’s especially important to make sure that kids in underprivileged areas have a chance to play at school.

“They’re in environments that they can’t even go outside to play, and the one place they can probably go outside to play and it’s safe, is their school playground,” she said.

A proposal to make recess daily is already making its way through the school district’s bureaucratic process. However, the proposal wouldn’t make recess mandatory, and it would allow teachers to substitute indoor “brain breaks” for outside play time. Brain breaks are a trend across the country, with children participating in a video-led dance routine or quick yoga practice in-between lessons.

“It’s not going to cut it,” Asturias said. “It is not a substitute for daily recess.”

The moms are setting their sights beyond Miami-Dade, joining women in the Orlando and Tampa area who led a fight last legislative session to make recess a matter of law. Each offers a skill-set that seems perfectly suited for the task.

Asturias brings the persuasion and research skills of a former lawyer. Conway contributes policy experience, having lobbied Capitol Hill lawmakers for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Hertfelder knows how to sell a message, with a background in communications and marketing for companies like Coca-Cola and CNN. And Kenny brings a network of parents as the head of a popular mom-centered blog.

Together, they are collecting signatures, printing fliers and bringing other moms onboard for what might be an uphill fight — a fight they all say is necessary for kids across the state.

“It’s about their mental and physical well-being. It’s that serious,” Hertfelder said.

Christina Veiga: 305-376-2029, @cveiga