The politics of play time: Moms take to school boards, elections

Kristen Bachmann, 6, swings on the equipment during recess at North Beach Elementary's Jennifer Beth Turken Playground earlier this year.
Kristen Bachmann, 6, swings on the equipment during recess at North Beach Elementary's Jennifer Beth Turken Playground earlier this year.

They call themselves the recess moms, and they won’t stop until every elementary of student in Florida has the right to play in school.

Across the state, a loose coalition of moms-turned political activists has come together to demand daily recess for their kids. They’re taking the fight to local school boards and state lawmakers — even running for office themselves.

Uniting them: the belief that school without recess is stressing students out and sucking the joy out of learning. The solution, they say, is 20 minutes of free play every day.

“A lot of pressures are put on these kids every day between testing, homework, the blocks of time they have to sit still,” said Kate Asturias, a mom from Key Biscayne. “We feel strongly that kids need — they must have — 20 minutes of recess a day to be kids.”

The benefits of recess have long been established. Kids learn social skills when they create a new game together, debate a call on the kickball field and take turns on the swings. They also learn better: Studies have shown that children who get recess are more likely to stay on task in the classroom and may even perform better on tests.

Despite all that, recess has been on a steady decline in American schools. According to a 2008 report, 20 percent of schools have cut back on recess since 2002, when federal policy led to an era of high-stakes testing.

“Sometimes you want to look at these adults and say, ‘How about I confine you to your seat from 8:30 [a.m.] to 3 [p.m.],’” said Louisa Conway, another Miami-Dade recess mom. “That is what a lot of these kids around the district have.”

Conway, Asturias and other local moms have been lobbying the Miami-Dade school board to expand the district’s current recess policy. The district, Florida’s largest, already requires recess at least twice a week.

But parents say the mandate isn’t always followed by school leaders who are under pressure to perform on state tests. Even when it is, a few days a week isn’t enough for energetic kids.

School board members recently approved changes to Miami-Dade’s recess policy, but they stop short of requiring play time every day. The changes also allow recess to take the form of short “brain breaks” — typically a desk-side dance routine or yoga practice that gets students moving between lessons. Parents say it falls short of what kids need.

“We want the kids outside in fresh air and being active. That’s our goal,” Conway said.

District leaders promise more changes are in the works. In the meantime, the local recess moms are turning their attention to school board elections in August. With three seats up for a vote, Asturias said recess advocates hope to turn their cause into a campaign issue, and they’ll be interviewing candidates on their stances.

“We’re not going to give up,” Asturias said.

Across Florida, there have already been local success stories: Osceola and Seminole counties have recently passed mandatory recess policies.

Geraldine “Gigi” Callaghan, a physical therapist in Osceola County, made her first foray into civic activism after requesting her son’s school schedule and realizing there was barely any time for him to play.

“My son did not like to go to school anymore. He was saying that school was boring. It was always work, work, work,” she said. “There was no time for play or having fun.”

She scheduled a meeting with her local school board members and began to rally parents by talking to them in the car pick-up lines at school. Callaghan called in the media and soon enough the school board agreed to institute daily recess.

“It’s a lot of work. I just find it amazing that we have to argue our way into getting daily recess for our kids,” she said.

Angela Browning in Orange County hasn’t had the same success. Shortly after starting on her local campaign, Browning found out a handful of moms before her had also tried — and failed — to require recess in school.

“We just thought, ‘How many times are we going to do this? How many mothers, in how many years, in how many meetings are going to have to beg for 20 minutes?’” she asked.

That’s when the statewide push was born. A group of moms from around Tampa and Orlando joined together, funding weekly drives to Tallahassee out of their own pockets.

They were a bunch of lobbying “rookies,” Browning said, but they succeeded in getting a bill heard in Tallahassee last session. It passed the House but stalled in a Senate committee, where it died.

Undeterred, Browning and moms from across the state are recruiting lawmakers to their cause. Working in their favor: a majority of seats in the House and Senate are up for reelection after statewide redistricting, meaning there’s plenty of opportunity to make recess a campaign issue.

“Mothers don’t just walk away from something they believe in. When their children are involved, they are willing to put in the time and the effort to see it through,” Browning said.

In Miami-Dade, Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla has promised to sponsor a recess bill if reelected. Sen. Anitere Flores has expressed similar support and recently called for a statewide review of local recess policies.

The key, Flores said, is to allow flexibility across the state’s very different counties. One solution may be to require districts to pass a recess policy that complies with certain minimum requirements.

“I’ve made the commitment to these moms in South Florida, but really to moms across the state, to say: ‘The state isn’t going to be a barrier,’” Flores said. “I think that 20 minutes a day is workable and it’s something that I would be supportive of.”

Christina Veiga: 305-376-2029, @cveiga