Aimee Ledesma didn’t realize recess was something that could be taken away until she started to ask her kindergartner more pointed questions about her schedule. “I just asked, ‘Do you guys always get to go outside?’ Yes. ‘If other kids are acting up, do you still get to go outside?’ No.”
“If one kid acts up, the whole class has to stay inside,” says Ledesma, a therapist and Kendall mother of two, speaking of her daughter’s class at Devon Aire K-8 Center.
Angel Contreras says she got in the habit of bringing her 5-year-old son to the playground at Devon Aire Park each afternoon, in part to compensate for the lack of recess at school. “I think he needs to go to recess every day, but I feel at the first opportunity that somebody misbehaves, that’s it,” she says. Another kindergartner says the class stays inside on days when it rains or when her classmates misbehave.
Miami-Dade County and Broward County are two of the only school districts in Florida that require recess—just 11 of Florida’s 67 counties currently have recess policies on the books. Both districts’ policies explicitly say recess can’t be used as a way to punish kids. Yet South Florida parents and teachers say that’s exactly what’s happening, from schools in wealthy zip codes like Pinecrest Elementary to schools next door to public housing.
Eight-year-old Luis Martinez used to play football and basketball almost every day, but says he last had recess when he lived in another state. According to Luis, recess at Lenora B. Smith Elementary stops in first grade. Older kids don’t bother to ask for it, he says, “because everybody’s pretty much used to not having recess now.”
“This has become an issue that has risen to such a level it seems like unless there’s a state mandate, it won’t happen,” says state Sen. Anitere Flores, explaining why she introduced legislation to require 20 minutes of daily recess statewide. “Parents say, and I agree, that sometimes they’ve taken the fun out of school.” Flores credits advocacy by so-called “Recess Moms” with getting her to introduce the bill in the first place. Parents successfully lobbied lawmakers to introduce similar legislation last year, but the bill died without a hearing in the Senate Education Committee. This year it passed out of that committee unanimously.
WLRN called and emailed principals at a half dozen schools after speaking with parents who voiced complaints about recess. None agreed to an interview. Miami-Dade County Public Schools did not respond to a request for an interview for this story; Broward County Public Schools did not follow up on WLRN’s request in time for publication.
Anna Fusco, a former elementary school teacher who became Broward Teachers’ Union president last year, says schools sometimes schedule recess as required by district policy, only to have teachers skip it “because they didn’t get to finish something in math or science or [English Language Arts].”
WHAT HAPPENED TO RECESS?
Classroom schedules have become more and more tightly managed in recent years: There are guides that spell out the lesson of the day, standardized tests that track goals for the year and software that struggling students are supposed to use to catch up. “A kindergarten teacher said to me, ‘I haven’t taken my babies out to recess in months,’” Fusco says, “because there’s so much for them to need to get done—and they don’t even take the FSA”—the statewide test administered in 3-10th grades.
Schools around the country have cut back on recess since 2001 when a federal law known as No Child Left Behind mandated standardized testing in all 50 states.
Fusco worries that even enshrining recess in state law might not change much, given how much weight Florida places on students’ test scores. The FSA affects teacher pay, bonuses to high-performing schools and even property values. “At the end of the year, when they’re talking about student test scores attached to teacher evaluations and when they’ve got cities breathing down their necks, about why do we have D and F schools in this community,” Fusco says, “there’s all types of pressure associated with this high-stakes test.”
WOUND UP TIGHT
“To me, these kids are wound up so tight they’re about to snap,” says Stephanie Aring, whose second-grade daughter goes to school in West Kendall. “She’s just worried, anxious, high-strung about school, and it’s like, you’re worried too much! You’d think she was studying for her MCATs: That’s the level of stress I’m seeing in these kids,” she says.
In an interview last year, Marie Izquierdo, Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ chief academic officer, likened parents’ push for daily recess to advocacy around music, arts and foreign languages. “I think the conversation needs to shift more from being a top-down carving out of minutes in the day to make sure we have all these different interest groups satisfied to really looking at the student experience and saying, ‘How can we make learning fun and engaging and active?’”
Izquierdo highlighted five-minute "brain breaks" that teachers use to work physical activity into their class routines, using software like GoNoodle.
“They’ll stand in front of their desk and do Zumba for kids, or they’ll do yoga or meditation,”Aring says of her daughter’s class. “And I’m not saying it’s not beneficial for children, but they need to run around and not have you telling them how to do it.”
On paper, Aring says her daughter’s schedule shows recess for 15 minutes a week, on Fridays, while district policy requires 20 minutes of recess twice a week or 15 minutes of recess three days a week. Recently she went to ask school administrators, “Did you know that they haven’t had recess this year, not once?”
Aring was encouraged when they acknowledged skipping recess violates district policy and vowed to look into it. Two weeks later, though, and her second grader says there’s still no recess.