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September 23, 2007

Remember Recess?

ImagesI have fond childhood memories of elementary school recess: jump-rope, double dutch, the climbing structure, the swings, kickball...and friends.  The playground was where our social life blossomed at school, where our bodies and imaginations could run wild and all the critical learning that takes place when children are playing would happen.  We got out that pent-up energy and went back into the classroom, ready to learn.

We had fairly long recesses in my small town in central Connecticut in those days; I don't know how long, but we must have had at least half an hour after lunch.  So it seemed normal when I went to work in a public school outside of San Francisco a few years ago that the kids had a nice long half-hour recess every day after lunch.  They also got a 10-minute snack/recess break mid-morning, and a physical education period every day.  This was in a typical 8:30-2:50 day.

Fast-forward to my current experience with the Chicago Public Schools, where my son is a second grader at a very good, high achieving elementary school on the north side.  He benefits from cutting-edge academic instruction, weekly computer lab time, Spanish, music, and art classes. In these times of reduced school funding for anything but the bare minimum, this school is impressive.

However, at this same school, the kids have one recess a day.  If they are lucky, it is 10 minutes long.  Yes, that's right:  10 minutes a day.  They have a 20-minute period in which to eat lunch and have recess.  I say "if they're lucky" because if some kids are being unruly in the cafeteria, the entire roomful of kids loses minutes of recess.  There were perfectly glorious days last year when my son said they missed recess entirely because some kids weren't listening to the "cafeteria ladies". 

And PE?  Once a week.

Is anyone else appalled by this?   Here, in Illinois, where childhood obesity is known to be a serious public health issue, kids in at least one otherwise excellent public school are getting only 10 minutes of physical activity most days - if the weather cooperates and the cafeteria staff feels like sending them outside.   

My son is lucky.  Our family places a high value on fitness and health and is aware of this problem, and there is either a parent or babysitter with him every afternoon to make sure he gets exercise after school.  We also take him swimming when we can, and he plays soccer twice a week.  We are modeling good nutrition and exercise for our kids.  Without a doubt, he is in the privileged minority.   

But let me tell you, it is becoming harder and harder to focus on the whole child these days, even at home.  This is due to the fact that, not only does the school not provide adequate physical activity, but the amount of homework (particularly major projects that require serious parental involvement) cuts significantly into time out of school that could be devoted to fitness and another requirement for good health, relaxation.

I'm new to this city and state, so I don't know the history of how and when these cuts were made.  I do know that this type of problem typically boils down to funding limitations.  But let me tell you, neglecting our children's physical health is a real crime.  All the reading and math instruction in the world will be absolutely useless in the long run if they don't have good health. 

I for one believe it's time to do something about it.  Our kids' lives depend on it.

Since writing it, I have discovered that there is actually a website called "Rescuing Recess" and that this very week is - amazing coincidence, here! - National Recess Week!!!  Who knew such a thing existed?


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