Tuesday, August 19, 2014

EDITORIAL >> Pupils need recess break

Just when it seemed the Pulaski County Special School was doing right, it turns right around and does something stupid — it has taken away recess at the elementary level.

Recess — and parents know this — should be a protected time, a sacrosanct period of free play that is no less important than the hours devoted to math or reading.

But PCSSD didn’t do this dastardly deed alone. A group of teachers who filed a grievance for more money helped.

So, because teachers got greedy and wanted a few dollars more, the district got miserly and wanted to save a few bucks — so, no recess.

Well, technically, the district didn’t have recesses last year either. That 15 minutes of outside play was called PAT or Physical Activity Time. The play was supposed to be structured, teacher-led and education-related. But many teachers knew the importance of free play and let the students have an old-fashioned recess.

There are multiple studies that show improved focus and better classroom behavior, including less fidgeting and hyperactivity and more participation in class discussions, after recess.

So why take it away?

Some of those PCSSD teachers who were allowed to hold recess filed a grievance claiming that, since it was non-instructional duty, they needed to get paid — paid extra for 15 minutes a day.

The district said no extra pay because it was not recess but PAT time, and, this year, teachers must submit lesson plans for that time.

So swinging for the fun of it is out, shootin’ hoops is a no-no, unless it is specifically in the day’s plans, and forget just hanging out by the big tree talking. All play will now be structured, forced and must fit within a 15-minute time limit.

That rules out fun activities like kickball. By the time the bases are set out, teams picked and rules gone over, time is up. Should the teacher take time out of math or literacy to go over rules for the educational PAT time?

Recess is most children’s favorite period, and parents and teachers should encourage it, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Recess can be a critical time for development and social interaction, and, in a new policy statement published in the journal Pediatrics, pediatricians from the AAP support the importance of having a scheduled break in the school day. “Children need to have downtime between complex cognitive challenges,” says Dr. Robert Murray, a pediatrician and professor of human nutrition at Ohio State University, who is a co-author of the statement. “They tend to be less able to process information the longer they are held to a task. It’s not enough to just switch from math to English. You actually have to take a break.”

What the doctor says seems to hold true for central Arkansas as neighboring school districts have recess and high tests scores.

For example, Cabot has recess at every elementary school. Recess is tied to the lunch period so the kids eat and then go outside or stay inside on bad weather days, according to Dr. Tony Thurman, the district’s superintendent. He adds that the time frame varies slightly between schools based on variables such as activity schedules and duty schedules. But, generally, it’s 15-30 minutes. “If a school has a short lunch recess, they typically take another short break at some other time during the day,” he explained.

Dr. Belinda Shook, Beebe’s superintendent, says, “We have several breaks during the day. Each school has it set up a little differently because of the organizational structure, but we have at least two recesses in Pre-K (through) 6 and a couple other breaks where they are able move around and be active.”

She says the breaks allow students to focus better, give them more energy, provide the opportunity to develop social skills and just make school more fun.

“I believe we get more out of them in the long run by allowing the breaks,” she adds.

Amen! Hallelujah! Are you listening PCSSD?

And then there’s Finland, which gives students a 15-minute break after every 45 minutes of instruction. And, guess what? Their scores are higher than PCSSD.

PCSSD does not believe in recess and, therefore, the logic follows that the district does not believe in high tests scores.

The pediatricians’ committee that developed the statement began its research in 2007, expecting to discover that recess is important as a physical outlet for children. What they found, however, was that playtime’s benefits extend beyond the physical.

“We came to the realization that it really affects social, emotional and cognitive development in a much deeper way than we’d expected,” she says. “It helps children practice conflict resolution, if we allow them unstructured play, and it lets them come back to class more ready to learn and less fidgety.”

Just three states — Delaware, Virginia and Nebraska — have 20 minutes of mandatory elementary-school recess a day, according to the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Dr. Robert Murray, a pediatrician who was a lead author on the pediatric group’s position, says that safe and supervised recess offers children physical, emotional, social and cognitive benefits, such as improved classroom behavior, a better attention span and interaction and bonding with other kids.

Recess, he says, helps a child’s cognitive process in the same way, for instance, as a coffee break for adults: It breaks concentration from work, releases restlessness and allows someone to return to work with a refreshed mind.

PCSSD has put itself in a jam. It is trying to decrease behavior problems, suspensions and expulsions, especially of African-American males. In eliminating recess, it may actually be creating more behavior issues.

And that gives Jacksonville-area residents another reason to vote for a new school district Sept. 16. The new district should show it is different and better than PCSSD. It can do so with the little things like making sure students have recess and hiring teachers who put students ahead of money.