Play advocates across the country are looking delightedly at Arizona as our state Legislature recently passed SB 1083, mandating that schools have two recess periods a day. The bill affects grades K-5, but grades 4 and 5 will have until August 2019 to comply. How this will look for each school district will be left up to school boards to decide.
We join a handful of states with mandatory recess and are among 21 states with some sort of physical activity mandate for students. This legislation followed a stalled bill last year that tried to gain kids 50 minutes of recess a day, but died on the floor.
Of the relatively few states which have recess bills, only four have successfully passed a timing mandate. We join a second tier, which at least acknowledges a child’s right to play in philosophical terms. This is fundamentally a big deal and why people in the education community are so excited.
Much of this national political groundswell came after the American Academic of Pediatrics released a statement lauding the social, physical and emotional importance of play, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reviewed multiple research studies, all concluding the same things that anthropologists, psychologists and parents have known for years: Play is important, play is fun and play is necessary for healthy children.
Brain research on early childhood only reinforces what we know from observing children cross-culturally — that play is motivating, adaptive and tests and expands our skills in problem-solving at the most basic level. Furthermore, long-term research on the educational benefits of play, such as the model of internationally top-ranked Finland, where students are allowed a short break after every class, has showed multiple positive outcomes in social development.
These include less bullying, better friendship skills and better academic performance in the classroom. Importing the Finnish model into the U.S. already has been done at the LiiNK project in Texas. This project has demonstrated that for U.S. elementary school children, play is an effective tool in raising not only social, but academic, performance.
However, despite this mounting evidence on the benefits of play, some schools likely will feel they can only follow the letter rather than the spirit of this new legislation. The law does allow for a lunch period, if social interaction is permitted, or a physical education class, to be counted as a recess period, and it does not specify the time a recess period should be allotted. It may be that we see schools using passing periods nominally as recess, when in fact they are nothing of the sort.
That would be disappointing. However, should that prove to be the case, the very fact this legislation exists will allow parents, whose pressure was a cornerstone in making this law possible, to push back for quality recess for their children and for children themselves to make their voices heard in this regard.
Lastly, one of the most insidious punishments in schools, recess deprivation, should decline, as children would be deprived of a legal right, not of a privilege. That, in and of itself, should be a massive step forward for many children whose only outlet for their classroom frustrations is regularly removed as a punishment for not being able to control their frustrations.
The irony about recess deprivation is that the data show the one thing that would most likely help a child with behavioral issues is more social time with their peers: That is, recess.