Florida Politics

Some kids get school recess and others don’t, parents say. The numbers back them up.

Kindergartners make plea for recess

Kindergartners at Miami Gardens Elementary School seem to have all the facts down about the benefits recess can bring. These energetic 5 and 6-year-olds feel the need for some sunshine and fresh air.
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Kindergartners at Miami Gardens Elementary School seem to have all the facts down about the benefits recess can bring. These energetic 5 and 6-year-olds feel the need for some sunshine and fresh air.

For more than a year, whenever a “recess mom” has come to the Florida Capitol and pleaded with lawmakers, they have told stories of their child’s lack of access to daily recess — offering anecdotes from their child’s school or school district to showcase the inequities of unstructured playtime offered in Florida’s public schools.

Informal surveys of parents in some counties, like Pinellas or Miami-Dade, have seemed to support their assertions.

But if lawmakers need official, solid evidence of the disparities in school recess, they need look no further than the findings of their own research analysts.

The Florida Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability (OPPAGA) last fall surveyed all 67 county school districts about their recess policies and also sought responses from 2,900 public elementary and middle schools.

The results revealed broad inconsistencies in whether school districts and specific schools actually offer daily recess, and if they do, how frequently and for how long.

The data — presented to some senators last week — comes as the Senate Education Committee is poised to vote Tuesday on legislation that would require 20 minutes of daily recess in all Florida public elementary schools, or 100 minutes a week.

83%, or 56, of Florida’s 67 school districts did not have a recess policy during the 2015-16 school year.

Some school districts don’t like the legislation, because they say there’s not always time in the school day for recess. Reluctance from some lawmakers largely surrounds whether the state should impose the mandate. They have argued the matter should be left to district school boards; however, “recess moms” counter that they’ve pleaded with their local leaders and, in many cases, those officials have failed to act.

Here’s some of what OPPAGA’s survey found:

▪ Only 11 of Florida’s school districts had some sort of recess policy for the 2015-16 school year: Miami-Dade, Escambia, Gadsden, Wakulla, Nassau, Union, Putnam, Levy, Orange, Charlotte and Lee counties. The other 56 districts — including Broward, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties — might still have offered some type of recess but didn’t have board-approved policies.

READ MORE: “Lawmakers considered forbidding teachers from withholding recess. Not this year.”

▪ Of those 11 school districts with policies, only eight actually required — versus simply “encouraged” — elementary school recess but they didn’t necessarily require it be provided daily, according to the survey.

▪ How each of those districts defined recess varied. Some, like Miami-Dade and Orange, call it “unstructured free play,” what is considered the traditional form of recess. Others, like Escambia, allow both unstructured and “structured” recess, which involves teachers formally directing students in chosen activities for that day.

▪ How many days of the week students got recess also varied. The survey found seven district policies — Escambia, Charlotte, Gadsden, Lee, Levy, Putnam and Union — specified recess five days a week. Other districts’ policies might have specified recess for fewer days of the week, if the frequency was specified at all. (As of December, Orange County now also requires daily recess.)

▪ And how much time students got for recess also ranged widely. They could get fewer than 50 minutes a week, as in Miami-Dade, or enjoy more than 200 minutes a week, as in Gadsden, the survey found. (Miami-Dade amended its district policy in August, so some students this year might have longer recess time.)

When it came to the school-level results, OPPAGA heard back from less than a third of the state’s public elementary schools, 612 schools out of about 1,900. Some senators thought that was telling. “The rate of return is incredible with this data, because if you’re not offering recess, you might not be bothered,” said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee.

45% of elementary schools that responded to the legislative survey — 278 of 612 schools — said they offered only “unstructured free play” as recess, the traditional view of recess that lawmakers might require in all schools.

Among those results, OPPAGA found:

▪ 83 percent of the 612 schools that responded reported providing recess last school year. Most of them said they included at least some “unstructured free play” in their recess activities, but fewer than half — 278 schools — offered only “unstructured free play.”

▪ In 75 percent of the schools that responded, the frequency and length of recess was consistent across all grade levels in the school (and 45 percent of the responding schools said they provided recess daily). But 13 percent of schools left frequency and length of recess up to the teacher, and 12 percent reported varying practices across different grades.

▪ About two-thirds of the 457 schools that reported providing consistent recess said they offered recess for fewer than 100 minutes a week.

Here is OPPAGA’s presentation in full. It is a pared down version of a more complete report on school recess the agency issued in November, which is available here.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark